‘Chevalier” is a Charming, Fraught Composition of Race and Respectability

“You have to work twice as hard to get half of what they have.”

It is a common refrain for Black children worldwide, a sobering reality and, perhaps, a comfort. The goal is to concisely explain centuries of systemic racism and signal a path through and beyond it. It forms the backbone of “respectability politics,” the idea that Black people must be consistently exceptional and mold themselves to society’s rigid conventions to be marginally successful in a world constructed against them. How a child metabolizes that message is determined by its messenger. It’s often a loved one, frequently a parent, speaking from hard-fought experience. 

Chevalier, the story of the famed and nearly-forgotten 18th-century French composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, surprises with its choice of messenger. Bologne’s white father, the owner of a plantation in Guadeloupe, is leaving him in the care of a wealthy (racist) boarding school. Before departing, he tells his adolescent son to use his prodigious gift as a violinist and strive for excellence. He imparts to Bologne the belief that being a “proud Frenchman” matters more than being mixed-race. Orchestral music supersedes the trauma of his father ripping him from his mother’s arms. Bologne could dine with kings and queens, if played well enough.

For much of the film, that wisdom bears itself out. Bologne, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., carries himself with an alluring confidence befitting his talent and skill. He embarrasses Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart during the film’s opening concert, hopping on stage and shocking everyone with his swift, florid performance. He sits in the royal box of Queen Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), chuckling at opera singer Marie-Madeleine Guimard (Minnie Driver), whose romantic overtures he coolly but decisively rejects. It’s easy to believe that the Chevalier is untouchable because of his musical ability. The world is his command performance, and everyone loves him, even as embers of the imminent French Revolution kindle.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the film CHEVALIER. Photo by Larry Horricks. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Stephen Williams directs with that same spirit. The film is in concert with other musical biopics like Elvis and Rocketman that offer fluid and playful styles and tones reflecting the era of its subjects, in this case, the opulence of pre-Revolutionary France. The energy serves Chevalier well as Bologne composes the marquee piece that should allow him to claim society’s highest cultural perch: conductor of the Parisian Opera. Williams moves through Bologne’s creative process with sharp pacing, airy montages, and sweeping, inviting camerawork. He derives thoroughly modern delight from Bologne’s face contorting in horror, exasperation, and joy as he auditions, practices, and dictates. Seeing him assemble his ostensible masterpiece and fully realize his and his father’s guiding ethos is fun, even thrilling.

Bologne’s formidable French pride can’t combat racism, though, and Chevalier can struggle to balance the brutal reality with its fanciful shades. The confusion comes from Bologne’s characterization and his sociopolitical awareness. Bologne doesn’t read as naive, given his savvy in navigating French society. However, gleaning his thoughts on how his race informs such movements can be challenging. Bologne will point out the hypocrisy of his lover Marie-Josephine’s (Samara Weaving) thoughts about Black marriage in one scene and then express shock at racism’s impact on his campaign in another. He attends a public debate on French liberation, but we know little about what he learns or initially believes. Is he a budding revolutionary or a staunch monarchist? Is he apolitical, or is he whatever is most convenient? What does he make of being Black, or does he simply ignore it? Chevalier can be evasive in offering answers.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Lucy Boynton in the film CHEVALIER. Photo by Larry Horricks. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Bologne’s opaque politics also impact how we perceive his most important relationships. The film is shaped around his connections with three women: his mother, Nanon, who was sent to France to live with him after Bologne’s father died; his married lover Marie-Josephine; and Marie Antoinette. His romance with Marie-Josephine is charming but weakened by the lack of clarity around its seriousness. Bologne’s friendship with Marie Antoinette is genuinely fascinating, given her own struggles fitting into the French aristocracy. However, there isn’t enough space to explore their similarities, or how her experiences with xenophobia affect her support and betrayal of him. 

Bologne’s relationship with his mother is similarly burdened. The unease between them is palpable as she easily integrates into Paris’ Black community, whereas he largely avoids it. The film only occasionally digs into the tension and its impact on him. It positions Nanon as a tangible link to Bologne’s buried (or discarded) Blackness without thoroughly interrogating the disconnect. Chevalier’s most potent drama comes from Bologne’s uneasy, and eventually comforting scenes with Nanon. It makes you yearn for more time with them, which might coincide with more time with Bologne’s internal battles. One scene in particular rings with untapped potential: Nanon braiding Bologne’s hair and explaining to him that the worst pain wasn’t done to a slave’s body but their mind.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Ronke Adekoluejo in the film CHEVALIER. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Joseph Bologne’s shrouded interiority doesn’t inhibit the man inhabiting him at all. Kelvin Harrison Jr. sparkles on screen with a mischievous indignance from the second he hops onto Mozart’s concert stage. He is ridiculously enjoyable to watch, whether playing the violin with fiery tenacity or intently observing his aristocratic company. Harrison Jr. wears Bologne’s unflappability well, but is even better through Bologne’s fall from grace. He stalks the ballroom towards Marie Antoinette’s table after losing the lead conductor position with a simmering, off-kilter rage that is discomfiting and impossible to look away from. It’s a star-making performance.

The world nearly lost Joseph Bologne’s story because of Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign to reinstate slavery in the French colonies. It’s a reminder that racist systems have, and always will, limit people of color, no matter their ability. Chevalier successfully fits Bologne into a contemporary context, communicating the scope of his talent and likely encouraging audiences to seek his work. The film does struggle to slot him into the complex, even fraught, discussion of respectability politics. Our vague understanding of Bologne’s inner conflict could make sense for the late 18th century but ultimately clash with the film’s modern underpinnings. 

Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the film CHEVALIER. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

The Chevalier is a compelling figure that millions will get to know through this film, but Chevalier may make you question how much you can really know him.

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