Chevalier: The true story behind the Joseph Bologne biopic

The Black musician's story is being told on the silver screen

Kelvin Harrison Jr. in Chevalier. (Searchlight Pictures)
Kelvin Harrison Jr. in Chevalier which tells the story of musician Joseph Bologne, aka Chevalier de Saint-Georges. (Searchlight Pictures)

Chevalier, which which is now streaming on Disney+, brings a previously untold story into public consciousness: The life of Black musical genius Joseph Bologne.

Directed by Stephen Williams and written by Stefani Robinson, the film sees Kelvin Harrison Jr. star in the title role and the drama charts the French-Caribbean musician's life in 18th century France, highlighting the erasure of Black classical musicians throughout history.

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Bologne was also known by the name Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and though he was as much a maestro as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart he has all but been forgotten in the annals of history, until now.

Who was Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges?

Kelvin Harrison Jr. in Chevalier. (Searchlight Pictures)
Kelvin Harrison Jr. in Chevalier. (Searchlight Pictures)

Bologne was born in 1745 to a plantation owner father, Georges de Bologne Saint-Georges, and his 16-year-old enslaved mother, Nanon, in the French Caribbean colony of Guadeloupe.

Bologne and his mother moved to France when he was seven-years-old, where Nanon became a free woman, and it is here that Bologne began to show an aptitude for fencing, dancing, horse-riding, and also composing music.

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Scholar Julia Doe reflected on Bologne's rise as a composer in an interview with the Guardian, sharing that the musician had a significant influence on the genres of the time from string quartets to operas.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. in Chevalier. (Searchlight Pictures)
Kelvin Harrison Jr. in Chevalier. (Searchlight Pictures)

Doe added that to call Bologne "Black Mozart", as he often has been referred to, is highly reductive because while the two composers may have known each other their music was not the same.

The professor of music told the publication: “Musical scholars find the comparative label that is sometimes used – ‘the Black Mozart’ – to be far too reductive because it’s very clear that Bologne’s remarkable life deserves to be studied in its own right.

"While their pieces rely on a common stylistic vocabulary just because they were both writing for courtly context in the 18th century, their music isn’t that similar.”

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The film Chevalier features a scene in which the composer and Mozart engage in a musical battle, duelling with their violins to show which is the better musician. It is unclear whether this event really did take place but it seems to have been included to directly call out the years Bologne has been compared to Mozart.

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Bologne went on to join the army during the French revolution, siding with those wishing to take down the monarchy, and during this time he led the country's first all-Black regiment.

The composer died in 1799 from an ulcerated bladder.

Chevalier is streaming on Disney+ now.