Chevalier Defies Whitewashing of Historical Movies Like Marie Antoinette and Amadeus

Kelvin Harrison Jr. leads us through Chevalier, a movie that puts the spotlight on Joseph Bologne, a Black virtuoso and contemporary of Marie Antionette and Mozart who until now has always been left out of the movies.

Kelvin Harrison Jr in Cheavlier
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Director Stephen Williams’ new film, Chevalier, starts with a concert that shatters any preconceived notions audiences might have about classical music. Staid and unexciting, it is not, when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Joseph Prowen) is introduced at the height of his fame, on tour and performing in Paris. The audience loves the ebbs and the flows of the sound from the orchestra, and at the end of the concert, Mozart asks the audience for requests. It is then that a Black man who we later find out is Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) stands up and asks to play onstage with Mozart. Suddenly, via Bologne’s rendition, one of Mozart’s own compositions is filled with a new energy and flair. There’s dueling violins and sensational solos as Mozart tries to keep up with Bologne. But he cannot. Bologne’s confidence is more than youthful egotism; he is clearly a master of his craft and Mozart could learn from him.

Immediately, Chevalier places a spotlight on a historical figure whose life’s work was banned and suppressed due to racism and who’s story has gone overlooked. Joseph Bologne was one of the first Black European classical music composers in recorded history. He was also an accomplished fencer and violinist. Bologne was given the title of Chevalier de Saint-Georges by King Louis VI (changed to Queen Marie Antoinette in the movie) for his earliest achievements. The fact Bologne was never mentioned in previous movies about Marie Antoinette, her husband, or this era in French history prove how effective efforts to whitewash history have been.

Some of the details of Bologne’s life have unfortunately been lost to time but screenwriter Stefani Robinson has spent years working to dramatize Joseph Bologne’s life. And we spoke to Harrison to get the inside scoop on how the film brought this hidden Black French history to life. 

“[Bologne is] unapologetic about his individuality and despite the fact that he’s still wearing the wig and he’s still dressing and trying to be of this period, he’s surviving,” Harrison tells us. ” At the same time, Joseph’s music is singular. He sounds like no one else. And this is why Mozart was threatened. This is why everyone wanted to be friends with him. His swagger was unmatched, his charisma was unmatched. His Blackness and being from the Caribbean made him interesting. His roots, which we see him finally really start to embrace, made him interesting.”

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The monarchy and aristocracy of France in the years before the Revolution began is a popular subject of both film and television. The 2006 movie Marie Antoinette directed by Sofia Coppola will be the movie most viewers likely compare Chevalier to. In addition, Chevalier’s opening intentionally likely recalls Miloš Forman’s Amadeus (1984), an epic about the rise and fall of Mozart. Joseph Bologne has also appeared in pop culture from time to time, be it in last year’s canceled STARZ miniseries Dangerous Liaisons or the new 2023 PBS miniseries Marie Antoinette, both of which spotlight Chevalier as one of Marie Antoinette’s favorite musicians. However, he has almost always been left in the background, filling out the margins of this world.

Conversely in Chevalier, after Bologne’s masterful upstaging, we then get a flashback to Joseph at around 6 years old. His father George (Jim High), who is a white man, is arguing with a private school to accept him despite being biracial and illegitimate. Bologne plays the violin at that age better than many adults can and this earns him admission. These early scenes set the tone for why Chevalier is unique in comparison to other films about 18th century France. Moviegoers are seeing the opulence of that period from the point of view of Black people who suffered to maintain the French monarchy’s wealth. The script also uses the racist language which was acceptable at the time to counteract the idealism and erasure of previous films. 

For instance, the 2006 Marie Antoinette film briefly featured a little Black boy who was a companion/servant to one member of the royal court but made no effort to examine why he was there beyond the conversation of excessive luxury. The racism of having a Black child treated as little more than a pet went completely unaddressed. By contrast, Chevalier shows several scenes where members of the elites and royal court call Bologne a “party trick” and other obvious dehumanizing terms. 

Two central conflicts drive the story of Chevalier. The first is Bologne’s quest to become the head of the Paris Opera. This position would allow him to write and artistically direct future productions and increase exposure for his musical compositions. His main rival for the position is the older, foreign, and white composer Christoph Gluck (Harry Lloyd-Hughes). The competitive nature of the performing arts shares thematic similarities with Amadeus, but the key difference is that Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s rival in that film, is the narrator. In addition, racism plays a much bigger role than personal spite as motivation for Bologne’s enemies to sabotage his career goals.

Chevalier and the beginning of Amadeus occur in the same time period, which means they aesthetically share a lot of set design and costuming elements. The main difference between Amadeus and Chevalier is where the action is centered, and how performances are used to move the story along. Amadeus takes place in Germany and Austria, whereas France is the stage in Chevalier. The audience sees more scenes in Chevalier where Bologne is playing the violin while Amadeus emphasizes Mozart drafting compositions for other actors, singers, and musicians. In the making of Chevalier though, the violin scenes were in fact some of the hardest to shoot for Harrison.

“We were supposed to start with the concerts, but I fractured my collarbone, so we had to push [back the filming schedule], and then I couldn’t play the violin during that time or fence,” Harrison says. “All the fencing stuff and the violin stuff had to get pushed to the end.”

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The second and closely related conflict is centers around to Bologne’s love life. Chevalier breaks ranks not only from the movies mentioned earlier but also recent movies such as Mr. Malcolm’s List, as well as TV period dramas such as Bridgerton, by presenting racism as a hurdle love and lust cannot easily conquer. Part of the reason is because French law differed from British law. Chevalier’s historical consultant Olivette Otele detailed in her book African Europeans about how the Code Noir restricted the lives of Black French people in ways that echoed U.S. enforcement of slavery before the American Civil War. Bologne mentions in the film that he will lose his title and resources if he marries a Black woman and he is also not allowed to marry white woman.

But during the audition process for the opera, Joseph meets Marie-Josephine de Montalembert (Samara Weaving), whose talent and beauty stands out from the crowd. Unfortunately, she is also married to someone else. There is some debate whether the real historical Marie-Josephine had an affair with Bologne, although he was apparently well known for liaisons in society, and biographer Gabriel Banat made a persuasive case about an affair between the two which led to even an attempt on Joseph’s life in 1779.

Screenwriter Robinson also further dramatizes this relationship to explain how Bologne’s views on the French aristocracy as a whole soured. The relationship with Marie-Josephine is designed to likewise cover gaps in the historical record of Bologne’s life before the Revolution—much of which was tragically obscured after Napoleon destroyed many records on Bologne after the newly risen French Emperor reinstated slavery in the French colonies. 

Chevalier also disrupts many current pop culture narratives about Queen Marie Antoinette as a social and political figure. In Chevalier, Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) starts out as the party-focused woman viewers are probably familiar with and develops into the quintessential Karen and white ally who chooses protecting her position in the white supremacist status quo over their Black friend. In the other films, Marie Antoinette is either an outright victim of an arranged marriage and societal misogyny, a spoiled brat, or a mix of the two. Some may argue that Chevalier mischaracterizes Marie Antoinette’s specific role in Bologne’s career trajectory, but audiences can make the connection that Marie Antoinette historically had a huge influence in the arts world through royal patronages. Robinson is once again filling in historical gaps with plausible scenarios where racism and classism can be shown to be huge factors in why Bologne’s accomplishments were covered up and ignored.

How Marie Antoinette is portrayed as an eventual antagonist to Bologne is also a factor in how Chevalier treats the French Revolution. Protests and discussions about equal rights for the rich and poor, and even women alike are woven through the story. We see how Bologne realizes that he cannot remain wrapped up in his own affairs while he ignores the impact of the current monarchical system on his own life and others. He attends a meeting of fellow revolutionaries and those ideals end up influencing his own career decisions. 

Although Bologne stands out in many scenes among the elite as the only Black man in the room, Chevalier also balances these scenes out by featuring his  mother Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo). She introduces him to the Black Parisian community which is a world away from the opera stage. In one of these scenes, Bologne takes a seat next to some drummers and starts playing with them. 

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“There was a brief little snippet in the script, I believe, that was like, ‘And there’s an after party,’” Harrison says. “We didn’t really know what that looked like or how it sounded or what that felt like or any of it. And so it was kind of realized on the day… and it was so magical, walking into that space and seeing all those beautiful faces, I felt very much like Joseph. Wow. Community means so much to us. It is necessary. It is vital to have community. And when we don’t have it, we’re lost.”

Chevalier was shot in Prague which meant the neighborhood and set crew were majority white even though Black creatives were calling the shots. Harrison felt real-life parallels with what Bologne was going through in his search for community and identity. That theme of community also extends to a scene where Joseph’s mother braids his hair before one performance. Scenes like this, which stress community and Black family dynamics, are incredibly rare in period drama films, let alone other genres. 

Says Harrison, “That’s really cool. It was really cool. I think Stephen [Williams] brought it up originally in my first meeting. He was like, ‘I want to see you get your hair braided.’ And I was like, ‘Really? You actually want to do that in this movie?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, I want to try it.’” For Harrison, it symbolized the arc of not only Joseph’s journey but that of a family surviving in the 18th century.

“The mother’s character has a full journey,” he says, “and to be able to be with Joseph, and her putting cornrows in his head, which has a whole historical context as well, it is also Joseph’s escape route, to some extent. He gets back to his truth.”

Chevalier proves that the future in period drama film is in exploring more unsung and previously suppressed Black historical figures. Although some historians decry pop culture for distorting history, films like Chevalier have immense power to draw viewers into their own Black history research. The film is also key in proving that the conversation around diversifying period dramas needs to widen out beyond U.S. and UK focused history. France and the other European countries have many Black historical communities and figures who are clearly underrepresented in period dramas. Chevalier is paving the way for other creatives to make films about the hundreds of other individuals and communities documented in Otele’s biography.

The future of period film is also in moving away from films covering the same few white European royals in history without at least critiquing their role in perpetuating racism and colonialism. In fact, several critics of the 2023 Marie Antoinette miniseries believed the French creative team took the easy path of retreading well-worn historical narratives over engaging audiences with unexplored historical figures. 

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Audiences seeking out Bridgerton and other diverse historical fiction dramas helps biographical films such as Chevalier gain exposure. There’s plenty of space on the silver screen for both escapist historical romance and biographical movies for hidden Black historical figures. Chevalier tilts that spotlight to an often overlooked figure.

Chevalier opens in the U.S. on April 21.