Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was a virtuoso violinist, a champion fencer, and a free man of color included in the highest echelons of power in the court of Marie Antionette. And yet, to most people, he is completely unknown. It’s something that director Stephen Williams and screenwriter Stefani Robinson wanted to rectify with their feature film, “Chevalier,” which tracks Joseph Bologne’s (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) life at the French court.
“It felt like a tall tale,” Robinson told TheWrap. She first came to discover Bologne’s life after reading Gabriel Banat’s biography on him and crafted a script from there. It was Robinson’s script that emotionally resonated with both Williams and star Samara Weaving. “Stephanie Robinson’s writing really is what made me want to jump at it and push to be in it,” Weaving said. “I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t heard of this story.”
For Williams, who was born in Jamaica and traveled to England, there was an additional personal element to the story. “So much of his [Bologne’s] personal life and the obstacles and the hurdles, and the challenges that he encountered along the way felt familiar. I identified with them,” he said.
What stuck out to everyone involved wasn’t just that Bologne’s life has been erased, both because of the passage of time and a concerted effort by the Emperor Napoleon to destroy Bologne’s music, was how relevant the story felt to today. “History does repeat itself,” said Robinson. “That sounds like a fortune cookie and incredibly trite, but it’s true. We do a very good job as humans in not remembering our past and locking it up.”
For Robinson and Williams, in particular, they didn’t take it lightly being Black creatives telling a story about a Black composer. “I recognized in Joseph’s response to that set of circumstances is to exert a sense of ambition on the world in which you find yourself, a sense of striving, trying to be excellent in the hope that you will ultimately find your rightful place in that particular social order,” said Williams.
With that sense of ambition being paramount to the character, it put a lot of pressure on Harrison to deliver. He studied for five months, seven days a week for six hours a day to be able to pull off Bologne’s violing playing. “I tried to get out of playing the violin in real life. ‘Let’s just make this job easy for me and let me just act.’ And Steven said, ‘No,’” said Harrison. Williams saw the character as the Prince or Jimi Hendrix of his day, which he utilized in crafting the visual tone of the feature. “I wanted to film in really long takes that connected the viewer as closely as I possibly could with the subjective experience of Joseph,” said Williams.
No one wanted to take massive artistic liberties when crafting the story, especially considering so much of Bologne’s life remains filtered through those who knew him; there are no first-hand accounts written by Bologne himself. “He was erased so, for me, it was like, ‘Well, I don’t want to add to that erasure by making up too much. I wanted to use as much as I could,” said Harrison.
On top of that, Harrison had an on-set drama therapist with him, where Harrison would engage in therapy session in the character of Joseph Bologne. “It would be real therapy,” he said. “It would be like, ‘Today my mom showed up and I don’t know how I feel about her … I’ve never done something like that before, but it was getting to the root of the issue which actually allows the performance to have the full safety and freedom to actually act the scene out.”
The film is coming out at an interesting time, in the wake of numerous period dramas that have exemplified colorblind casting while drawing criticism for failing to explore the real challenges Black people of the respective period experienced (like “Bridgerton”). “There’s a world where they can coexist,” said Robinson. “It’s important to be honest about the experience, the human experience, and how we experienced each other and ourselves. We’re not totally at a point yet where we’ve fully righted the wrongs of the human experiences in the past.”
The screenwriter agrees there’s a beauty within casting for character, and not color, especially as people of color don’t always need to be reminded of the perils of the past. “It’s a beautiful way to showcase so many different talents, and so many different people who wouldn’t necessarily be showcased in that way,” she said.
Williams, Harrison and Robinson all hope the movie will inspire not only more narrative features about Bologne’s life, but more critical evaluation of his musical work. “‘Chevalier’ can be a standalone thing, it can be someone’s entree into understanding this person, and they can have an affinity for the movie and the love for the movie. But [the hope is] that has then spurred a bigger and deeper relationship with Joseph and his music,” said Robinson.
“Chevalier” is in theaters April 21st. Watch the trailer below.