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‘Chevalier’ review: Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s portrayal of the Black French virtuoso is rousing enough to unearth this needed story

Director Stephen Williams tells the story of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, in an informative biopic of a Black pioneer.

Searchlight Pictures

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was a man of many talents – particularly in a time that was extremely hostile and unaccepting to people of color. (Some things never change). Bologne was a champion fencer, violinist, composer, and also led France’s first all-Black regiment during the Revolution. Even with that comprehensive list of accomplishments, Bologne’s history is buried. After he died in 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte re-established slavery and destroyed Bologne’s compositions. This is why it’s valuable to have films like Chevalier to keep many of these stories alive.

Director Stephen Williams and writer Stefani Robinson make this film almost like an authentic musical piece. There’s the element of Oliver Garcia’s costume design which richly mirrors the powdered wigs, double-breasted coats, gowns, and robes of 18th-century France. It feels as if you are viewing an accurate reenactment of that time rather than a cheap imitation of an interpretation. Chevalier also fully invests in creating operas and classical instrumentation that feels beautiful and authentic.

The film begins fantastically – showing an adult Bolonge (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) face off against Mozart in a violin dual of the ages. No, this never happened – instead, it’s a device to show how talented this virtuoso was, even if it is a work of fiction.

Larry Horricks / 20th Century Studios

Chevalier’s actual weight is how it contends with the many social issues around and warring inside Bologne’s psyche. There’s the question of his racial identity as the son of a teen enslaved person named Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo) and a white French plantation owner. A dynamic is created where he is dropped off at the La Boëssière Academy in France and told to “be the best he can be.” Despite being proficient in many subjects, Bologne is subjected to racist abuse. This is (temporarily) kept at bay when he catches the eye of the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton). After she ordains him “Chevalier des Saint-Georges,” it seems like the insular world is at his feet.

Even as Bologne has achieved some “status” class, that elevation only goes so far. Thus, when he expresses his ambitions to lead the Paris Opera from the rather dull and status quo course on its own, some tensions flair. Marie Antoinette is only aligned with Bologne to an extent, and an outsider named Christoph Gluck (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) is also vying for the top title. They are both tasked with making an original opera for the coveted spot, but Bologne’s insistence on making Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving) his lead complicates things on many scales.

Even with Bologne’s story as the central fixture, Williams looks at many other issues. Bologne’s close confidant Philippe (Alex Fitzalan) is an activist whose speeches command those in secret about the upcoming Revolution. Marie-Josephine questions things as well – regarding women's place in society and how they have little to no rights in their day-to-day lives. These themes eventually collide with our Chevalier, who falls in love with Marie-Josephine, which opens up a whole other level of complications.

Larry Horricks / 20th Century Studios

A conundrum arises when the artist speaks of love and marriage as it pertains to him – if he marries a woman of color, he instantly loses his status, and if he falls in love with a white woman, it’s strictly forbidden. It’s all a cruel realization of a person who gave so much of his artistry to so many people who don’t necessarily deserve to hear it. Harrison Jr. skillfully weaves between emotions where Bologne is highly confident in his abilities and torn up by the unjust racial constructs he has to operate within.

He and Weaving work best together when it comes to the more romantic aspects of the film. Regarding the racial dynamics Chevalier faces, this is where Adekoluejo’s temperament as Bologne’s mother, Nanon, shines. It returns to the adage of what his father, who abandoned him, says – however, you can’t just out accomplish racism. In Nanon’s return and her words, Bologne starts to see the world for what it is.

There might be some critiques based on the film focusing on the forbidden union and getting to the revolutionary part of Bologne’s life much too late in the narrative. The order in which moments occur follows a typical structure of how these biopics flow. It gets to the point where you see many things coming before they happen. Despite this, moments like the last concert of the film show the audience why they are so powerful.

These Black stories must be told, but most importantly, they deserve an extensive canvas to illustrate them. Chevalier does enough to convey why its subject is so important with a particular type of defining flair.

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