The Pan African Film and Arts Festival (PAFF) recently announced that “Chevalier” will open its 31st film festival in Los Angeles on Feb. 9 at the Directors Guild of America. The star-studded red carpet gala will be hosted by NFL-Pro turned actor Thomas Q. Jones (“P-Valley”), the Festival’s 2023 Celebrity Host.
Inspired by the incredible story of composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The son of an enslaved African woman and a French plantation owner, Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) rises to improbable heights in French society as a celebrated violinist-composer and fencer, complete with an ill-fated love affair and a falling out with Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) herself and her court.
“Chevalier” is directed by Stephen Williams and is written by Stefani Robinson and features music by Kris Bowers.
Set in 18th Century France, the film unfolds the vivid, timely story of the soaring rise and defiant spirit of a musical phenomenon.
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. Williams (“Watchmen”) and 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.
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.”
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 10 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.”
For Harrison (“Luce,” “Monsters and Men”) — who studied violin for seven 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.
Tickets to the Opening Night red carpet gala are on sale at paff.org.