Friday, April 19, 2024

Chevalier Director Stephen Williams on the Forgotten Music Legend

Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the film CHEVALIER. Photo by Larry Horricks. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

 Inspired by the incredible story of composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The illegitimate son of an African slave and a French plantation owner, Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr. in a tour de force performance) 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) and her court.

Many names come to mind when influential and famous composers are mentioned, but there are some artists whom you rarely if ever, hear about. One of these artists is Joseph Bologne and Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He was a musician and composer who swooned French audiences with his work. What makes Bologne even more interesting is that he was of mixed race and from the then-French colony of Guadeloupe. Searchlight Pictures has brought the story of Bolonge to life in the upcoming film Chevalier, written by Stefani Robinson (Atlanta, What We Do in the Shadows) and directed by Stephen Williams (Lost, The Watchmen). A compelling story about a multi-talented artist who took Europe by storm. 

Becoming the Director

Williams admitted that the script written by Robinson immediately blew him away. “I felt blessed and had the good luck to be the recipient of the offer to make this film,” Williams said. 

With some of Bologne’s work destroyed by the French government and lost over the years, Williams and Robinson had little to work with. “There were gaps in the story that we had. We tried using our imaginations to [bring to life] his subjective point of view or what we imagined his point of view to be. We tried to walk with him through the course of his life. Our interest was not necessarily being bound by fact but more by truth, which is not necessarily the same thing”, Williams explained. 

In a previous Toronto Film Festival interview, Williams mentioned that Joseph’s story is relatable to some creatives today in entertainment. Williams said, “Let me just say that when I read the script, part of what was interesting to me was obviously an opportunity to tell an entertaining story, but also to introduce viewers to a character, a historical figure, and a time period that maybe they weren’t familiar with. On another level, it felt really personal to me. Joseph Bologne was from a Caribbean island, Guadeloupe, and made his way to Europe as a young man. I was born in Jamaica and went to England as a young man. My life story, I felt, totally identified with some aspects of Joseph’s life story, which were very personal. I can recognize much of the trajectory of his life in my own. A reflection of my own experiences. Sure, the story happened in the mid-1700s in Paris, but it felt like it could have been happening today, minus the wigs and the costumes”. 

Working with Kelvin Harris

Kelvin Harris Junior is being dubbed one of the most talented young Black actors of our time. Williams had nothing but praise about the young talent. “Yeah, I mean, Kelvin is just a fantastic talent. He’s just, you know, he’s a really intuitive actor. He first has to feel that person’s reality… He imagined what it, you know, what it could be. All the violin bowing that you see in the movie, that’s Kelvin. The fencing that you see is Kelvin. There are no tricks, no CGI, and no stunt doubles. It’s all Kelvin. And all of that is a product of the immense dedication and hard work he brought to tackling this role”, Williams explained. 

He continued, “We wanted to honor and respect the period in which the story took place but then also open it up tonally so that it felt contemporary at the same time. So it didn’t feel like a stuffy period piece, you know? It didn’t feel like Masterpiece Theater. It felt like something that was vital and energetic and kinetic and felt of now even though it was taking place in pre-revolutionary France. Calibrating that balance was tricky.”

Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the film CHEVALIER. Photo by Larry Horricks. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Bologne’s Life

For portraying people of color in France, director Williams said, “France had a number of colonies at that time, right? And again, in ways that reflect much of what happens today. A lot of people of African descent, from the diaspora, from the colonies, made their way to France and made their way to Paris. So much so that the character you see portrayed in the fencing scenes is a real guy whose real concern at the time was that too many people of African descent were making their way into Paris. They’re undocumented. We need to have a census to get a handle on how many of these people there are so that we can ultimately send them back from whence they came”.

Williams explained, “if that doesn’t strike you as being contemporary, then nothing in the movie will. There were a lot more people of African descent in Paris than is normally acknowledged in cultural output at that time. And it was imperative that Joseph’s mother, Nanon (played by Ronke Adekoluejo), a formerly enslaved woman from Guadeloupe, would make that connection with that community in Paris and use that strength to help inform him.”

When asked what he thinks people will get from this film, director Stephen Williams explained, “You know, hopefully the audience is entertained because it’s an entertaining story. Joseph’s life was lived on a grand operatic scale. The music is dope; hopefully, people leave the movie having learned something about somebody they never knew before”.

Chevalier opens in theaters April 21st, 2023.

Dapper Dr Feel

Felipe Patterson aka Dapper Dr. Feel, #BlackLoveConvo & Entertainment | @fdapperdr Dapper Dr. Feel is a Entertainment journalist and member of the Critics Choice Association and African American Film Association.

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