Set in 18th Century France, CHEVALIER unfolds the vivid, timely story of the soaring rise and defiant spirit of the musical phenomenon, Joseph Bologne, aka the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The Chevalier was what we would call today a superstar—a blinding multi-talent at the top of several games: he was a virtuoso violinist who gave packed concerts; a champion swordsman; an ingenious composer; and, for a time, one of the most alluring, unexpected members of Marie Antoinette’s glittering court.
Historians have long struggled to document Bologne’s life. With his papers and his music destroyed in Napoleonic times, little is known of his inner experiences moving in the sphere of the elites. Director Stephen Williams (“Watchmen”) and screenwriter Stefani Robinson (“Atlanta”) aimed to give Bologne a fresh, contemporary life on screen. With many of the details imagined based on extensive research of the period, CHEVALIER is a buoyant and aspiring vision of a man driven to create and to truly be who he was, no matter the expectations put upon him, or the dreams forbidden to those like him.
Bologne was the son of an African slave and a French plantation owner, a man of color in a society rife with racist beliefs and laws. In the midst of mounting bigotry and raging social fury, his path would take a turn—as he ultimately rebelled against the aristocracy that adored his talents yet disparaged his heritage and confined his potential.
While his story is set in the 18th Century, it also speaks strongly to this moment. From its high voltage opening violin battle, the film lends Bologne a touch of rock-and-roll swagger. But if Bologne’s fame and radiance echo the world of the modern pop star, his tale is equally an exploration of something very relatable today: how a person breaks out from the trap of what others expect or demand.
Robinson, who was first inspired by the Chevalier as a teenager, remembers being astonished by how epic his life was—from being born on a slave plantation to befriending the Queen. “His life had so many arcs and it was extraordinarily cinematic,” she says. “Joseph always felt like a rock star to me.”
Determined to bring his life to the screen, she saw a chance to revive his legend— it’s a story of identity, of someone who broke the frame, and then paid the price of being left out of the picture. “The more I learned about him, the more I was frustrated that people don’t know who he is,” says Robinson. “It was not easy to get him to the screen, but the fact that it’s here and feels so alive is a very special thing.”
Williams, a celebrated television director/producer and Emmy Award winner for the groundbreaking Tulsa Riots episode of the “Watchmen” series, was so drawn to the story that he chose CHEVALIER to make his big screen directing debut. He was drawn to recreating one of the most sumptuous eras in human history from an unseen angle, but even more so to “redressing the imbalances of historical storytelling.” Williams explains, “I’m very interested in reclaiming the stories of people who led compelling, impactful lives yet have been ignored and dismissed in the larger narrative.”
Bologne is a spectacular example of someone denied his due. He went from being a towering celebrity and influencer to evaporating from the pages of history books for centuries.
Williams zeroed in on the pressure Joseph must have felt, a pressure he knows well—the mindset that you must be ten times better than your peers, and above reproach, just to be valued. “You see Joseph start out believing that if he can just excel at everything he does, he’ll be accepted into aristocratic society,” comments Williams. “But what he discovers is that social acceptance is not what counts. It is self-acceptance that is most important in a life journey.”
The film’s period, one of rampant artistic innovation yet social upheaval, also felt intimately linked to ours, and Williams structured the film looking not just backwards but forwards. “The French Revolution 4 is so reminiscent of the social convulsions we’ve seen globally over the last few years, with similar outcries for equality and greater accountability,” he notes. “It’s a world that mirrors our own.”
For Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Luce, Monsters and Men) – who studied violin for 7 hours daily to embody the title role—the Chevalier felt incredibly modern, especially the way he moves so fluidly between the worlds of music, sport, and ultimately the fight for justice. “I felt I could understand him as a Black artist. His path reflects how we all struggle to find the spaces where we can be seen and heard,” Harrison says. “This story asks big questions about art and equality and why so many Black artists have been erased, but it’s also a beautiful celebration of the Chevalier’s life.”
Tickets to the Opening Night red carpet gala are on sale at paff.org