‘Chevalier’ highlights forgotten Black history

Photo courtesy: “Chevalier’s” Facebook account

If you enjoy movies with an engaging storyline and a history lesson thrown into the mix, “Chevalier” might be for you.

Directed by Stephen Williams, “Chevalier” is based on Joseph Bologne, a French- Caribbean champion fencer, composer and violinist.

In 1745, Joseph Bologne was born to an enslaved Senegal mother and a wealthy French plantation and slave owner. Joseph Bologne got the nickname “Black Mozart.”

The creative direction for the opening scene is spot-on and serves as an emblematic symbol.  In the opening scene, Mozart plays on stage and Joseph enters the room to challenge Mozart to a string duel.

Kelvin Harrison Jr plays Joseph Bologne, the confident, fashionable and witty violinist.

Mozart doesn’t see how a Black man would dare pick up such an instrument. This scene sets the tone for the movie. After he sweeps the French audience off their feet, he is met with a standing ovation. The audience will see the struggles of Joseph trying to prove himself as an Afro-Carribean violinist and composer.

Due to the fact that he had French noble blood, Joesph gained access to higher education in the French upper class. Before being dumped off to private schools by his father George de Bologne Saint-Georges ( Jim High) had the conversation that most Black parents have with their children when explaining the harsh realities of the world.

“Joseph you must be excellent, always excellent. No one can tear down an excellent Frenchman.”

This scene was surprising coming from someone with an advantage in society. Joseph listened to his father, and he was indeed excellent in everything he did from fencing to composing and playing the violin.

Julia Doe, a musicologist at Columbia University, told the Guardian that Joseph Bologne’s skills were unmatched. “Unlike other more famous composers of this period, it’s very clear that music was just one facet of Bologne’s personal and professional identity.”

Although he excelled in every area, his Black skin still came with its burdens. Joseph’s striking features drew white women’s attention in the movie. The scenes where his physical attributes were brought up, showed the fetishization of Black bodies during the slave trade period.

Some of the white women that took a liking to him were the queen of France, Marie Antoinette, played by Lucy Boynton. The film followed the complicated relationship after Marie Antoinette crowned him the Chevalier (noble knight). Race and politics impacted their friendship when the queen’s throne was at stake.

The start of the French Revolution brewed throughout the movie, and Louis Philippe II (Alex Fitzalan) an activist for a constitutional monarchy challenged the political climate. Joseph was intrigued by Philippe’s stance and looked at his privileged inner circle through a different lens.

As Joseph connected more with his African roots, his relationships with white allies like Marie Antoinette dissipated.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. embodies Bologne’s confident and sometimes naive nature. “Chevalier” explores the complex nature of white privilege and Joseph’s belief that being close to whiteness is superior.

I particularly enjoyed the scenes depicting Joseph struggling with his bi-racial identity. This topic is still relevant in the 21st century and Joseph’s mother (Ronke Adekoluejo) opened his eyes to the strength in his African heritage.

One critique of the film was the hyper-focus on Joseph Bologne’s relationship with women. I would have liked to see his involvement in the French Revolution and how he led 1,000 Black Frenchmen to victory in 1790.

I would give the film four stars out of five. Learning about Black history that was meant to be destroyed and forgotten was a rewarding experience.