“Chevalier” introduces its subject in spectacularly dynamic fashion: Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) walks into a concert held by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart like he owns the place, and challenges the famed composer to a duel, their violins their weapons. The resulting face-off, during which Joseph and Mozart essentially shred on their delicate instruments, Joseph outperforming Mozart to his consternation and the audience’s surprise and delight. He immediately makes an impact, first because of his talent, and second because he doesn’t resemble the other aristocrats in the room: Joseph Bologne is Black, born of a white Frenchman and an African slave.
Director Stephen Williams’ biopic, written by Stefani Robinson, sheds light on a figure that has been all but forgotten by history, his formidable musical accomplishments outshone by the legacy of his white contemporaries. Just as quickly as he establishes Joseph’s gifts, Williams shows how those gifts were the product of immense pressure brought on Joseph— also known as the Chevalier de Saint-George’s— from a young age to be the best at everything, as his race would make him appear lesser in the eyes of most. His skills catch the eye of Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) and an older upper-class woman called La Guimard (Minnie Driver), and, his fame and success on the rise, Joseph presents a challenge to the man slated to be the French Opera’s new composer: whoever composes the best opera will when the coveted position.
The thread “Chevalier” chooses to primarily follow after that, however, is not Joseph’s music career, but a fictionalized forbidden romance with a white, married singer he hires to perform in his opera, Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving). Unfortunately, the opening music battle is the most exciting scene in the entirety of “Chevalier,” but even when it treads on familiar biopic territory, its message transcends convention. Joseph’s confidence is shattered when racism rears its ugly head, in the form of his peers rejecting him because he is Black, and Marie’s vile husband. There’s a realization that it doesn’t matter how hard he works or whether or not he is the best because he will always be seen as other, and the film doesn’t shy away from the harsh consequences. But the film also relishes in the joy Joseph experiences when he realizes, thanks to a visit from his mother (Ronke Adekoluejo), that he should take pride in his Black heritage. If the film’s most electrifying scene is its opening, the next one is later in the film, when Joseph participates in a sort of jam session using traditional instruments, joyfully immersing himself in Creole culture.
It doesn’t hurt that such a magnetic performer as Harrison so confidently inhabits the lead role. There’s a likely more fascinating path that “Chevalier” could have taken, one that leaned heavier into the music, or other aspects of Joseph’s life (he served, for instance, as a colonel in Europe’s first all-Black regiment following the onset of the French Revolution in the late 1700s, although the revolution feels rather shoehorned in to the end of the film). But I walked into the screening never having heard of Joseph Bologne before, and left the theater googling his name. Calling “Chevalier” a triumph may be a stretch, but with its lavish period production design, a lead who dominates every scene, and enlightening themes, Joseph’s story is essential to experience.
Runtime: 107 minutes.