The life of Joseph Bologne is explored in the new film Chevalier. The French-Caribbean virtuoso violinist and composer, who was considered the most influential Black composer of his time, rose to fame in Paris and was titled the Chevalier de Saint-Georges by Marie Antoinette in the late 1700s. While Bologne published numerous string quartets, sonatas, stage works and two symphonies, most were destroyed under Napoleon’s reign. Chevalier writer Stefani Robinson and director Stephen Williams took on the immense task of retelling Bologne’s story, which is filled with tragedy, triumph and music. 

EBONY talked with the creative duo about their motivation for sharing Chevalier’s story and why the issues this musician faced nearly three centuries ago are still relevant today.

EBONY: What type of research did you do to write Chevalier’s story?

Stefani Robinson: I read a lot of books. There’s one book, The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow, that felt like the most comprehensive book on his life. That was a great starting point. I did loads of research on the time period, learning about France and its relationship to slavery. There was a lot done to try to fill in the blanks about Joseph, who he might have been hanging out with and how he might have used his instruments.

What were some of the important touch points for you in sharing his tale?

Stephen Williams: I wanted to share this improbable story of this incredibly accomplished person: virtuosic violinist, classical composer, opera and equestrian champion, marksman and champion fencer. I knew nothing about Chevalier until I read the script, but I was so intrigued that I did a deep dive. His story is an amazing example of Black accomplishment and achievement that has been ignored by history, for the most part. This is a great opportunity to shine some light on a much-deserving individual.

What real-life points did you want to capture, and where did you take cinematic license to fill in the gaps?

Robinson: I don't know where I would draw the line between the historical facts. It was something that just felt incredibly intuitive. We wanted every piece of this movie, even if it wasn’t purely historical, to come from a place of truth. We are maintaining some of his major life events, one that was personally tragic. And obviously, his relationships with the Paris Opera and Marie Antoinette. One of the bigger events that no doubt must have been incredibly embarrassing is when he was essentially promised to be the head of the Paris Opera, and then it was revoked. I spent time marinating on that and filling in the gaps using what was going on in that time period. 

Chevalier lived in the 18th century, but the movie has a very contemporary feel. Was that intentional?

Williams: The more I learned about his story, the more I felt this could be happening now, minus the wigs and costumes. That opened the window into how to visualize the movie. Joseph Bologne was performing live and people were responding in an immediate way. I wanted to infuse the movie with that kind of energy and tone and pacing because, for Joseph, his life was happening right then and there.

How did you want to show the two worlds that Joseph lived in, living in high society and his heritage from an enslaved mother?

Robinson: At that time in mainland France, they had outlawed slavery. So if you were enslaved and came to France, you were essentially free. But in the colonies, they allowed slavery. His mother, Nanon, would have been a free woman when she arrived with Joseph. It’s said that she would have been a domestic worker, a maid in someone's home, but we believe that she did have a relationship with him. 

He was a biracial man navigating a white society. How important was that to portray for you how much he had to excel just to be accepted?

Williams: That aspect of his story was one I identified with immediately. He's from a Caribbean island, Guadeloupe, and was taken to France by his father when he was 10. I'm from Jamaica and I went to England when I was 13. I identified with his journey as an immigrant and outsider, the obstacles and the challenges that he met and faced. One response is to exert ambition and try to excel as a way to make sense of your place in that world. You imagine that will allow you to figure out the riddle of that social construct and then maybe you’ll be included. And for a while, it might actually work. But sooner or later, you realize that it's actually not that simple. It's more complicated, conditional and contradictory. When that moment happens, you're either going to transform and change and grow, or you're gonna get plowed under. Joseph was a musical revolutionary and a revolutionary in a literal sense. He led an all-Black battalion during the French Revolution. He was a revolutionary in terms of his self-awareness, self-possession and self-knowledge. No one but ourselves can free our minds—that was his journey.

Can you talk about having the theme of Joseph’s excellence always on display?  

Robinson: The thing that made Steven and I curious was why, why was he so good at a million things? And it's because of survival. One of the books I read described him as a workaholic. He was constantly writing music and practicing many things. Yes, he was passionate, but this is someone who is completely throwing himself into his work as a means to escape, to protect himself from a lot of painful things. He believes that if I'm excellent and accepted then I'm safe and can't be hurt, which we know is not true. But I think that drives his narrative arc in the movie.

What is wonderful is that we get a chance to hear his music, like his opera Ernestine.

WIlliams: A lot of his music was destroyed and lost, but we were able to find the remaining pieces and include a lot of that in the film.

Chevalier opens nationwide on April 17, 2023.