Who is Joseph Bologne? Honestly, we wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t know. We certainly didn’t. But we promise you if you go and see the new movie based on his life, Chevalier, starring Kelvin Harrison Jr, Samara Weaving, and Lucy Boynton, you’ll definitely never forget him again.
Chevalier tells the true story of the incredible Joseph Bologne (Harrison Jr), a French-Caribbean musician who, despite his race, finds a patron in the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette (Boynton), and rises to a preeminent position in Parisian high society. Unfortunately, though, when Joseph dares to speak truth to power he finds out he may not be as popular at court as he believes.
An absorbing and sometimes heartbreaking portrait of a man history has tried its best to forget Chevalier is a gripping exploration of racism, class, and privilege, and one of the best drama movies we’ve seen this year. So when we were asked if we wanted to talk to writer Stefani Robinson and director Stephen Williams we jumped at the chance. Warning: minor spoilers ahead for one of our favorite new movies.
The Digital Fix: You mentioned in the movie that Joseph’s life isn’t particularly well documented. I’d love to hear how you both first heard this incredible story.
Stefani Robinson: I first heard about him when I was a teenager; it was a book that my mom had given me. He was mentioned in there, and I think I don’t know what the book was, but I think it was a book of maybe remarkable people of color throughout history, and heard there was a little blurb or section in there about him. That’s when I first read about him.
Stephen Williams: Yeah, I knew nothing about Chevalier until I read Stephanie’s amazing script, but the more I learned about him, the more amazed I became that I hadn’t heard anything about such a tremendously accomplished person. The fact that he had largely been erased from our kind of collective history and our awareness of our collective shared human story was fascinating to me. It set me off on a very kind of labyrinthine tour of research, trying to learn everything I could about it.
Stefanie, can you tell me a little bit about the process of taking this from that teenage discovery to making it into a full movie script?
SR: Well, this was something that I carried with me for many, many years, and over those many, many years, the astounding thing was that no one seemed to know who this person was. I think I was sure by the time I actually ended up pitching it that they would have made five movies about this guy. It was just one of those stories I couldn’t get out of my brain, and I think the first time that someone seriously asked me, ‘Hey, do you have any feature script ideas?’
I was working mostly for TV at the time, and the only one I could tell anyone about was, ‘Hey, this guy, like if you heard of this guy, is really just he’s lived its incredible life. It’s operatic. It’s cinematic. It’s heartbreaking. It’s tragic. It’s romantic, like, I would love nothing more than to try to bring his story to life. So it was sort of like a no-brainer. Anytime I got the opportunity to talk about him, I did in that context, and now here we are.
How did you work to fill in the gaps in his story? Obviously, you have to be respectful of the fact this is a real-life person. But I know there are vast swathes where we just don’t necessarily know what was going on. So can you tell us a little about filling in those historical gaps?
SR: Yeah, I think the most important thing to note was that when I wrote the script and then when Stephen and I were working on some of the earlier drafts of it, I just really didn’t want it to feel like a Wikipedia page. I wasn’t interested in [telling a story like] like, and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.
I think, when I was a teenager, like a kid, the thing that was so exciting about his life was that it felt like a movie. It felt mythic, almost like a fairy tale, and that was the quality that attracted me to it. This idea, too, is that we, as black people, don’t have so many fairy tales. We don’t have so many like mythic heroes, and here’s our guy. Here’s the story of him in the opera of him where he wins at the end, and we can cheer for this person. I think that was the thing, but that’s how I felt.
I just remembered that was the feeling that I had when I was young, like, ‘Oh, man, this feels really special to me.’ So I’m not so concerned about all the historical facts. When I was young, I was just so impacted by the fact that he existed, and he was so extraordinary. So that was the thing that I wanted to capture with this movie, so when we were approaching the facts, we were absorbed in everything. I think we were really diligent about our research; we spoke to professors, and we read book after book.
At one point before I met Stephen, I had gone to France a couple of times to go to the same places where Joseph maybe played music and just to absorb everything, everything factual and real, and then when it came time to actually write it, it was like OK, well what is helpful and useful in framing this story as that sort of mythic larger than life feeling and where can we? Where can we dramatize this in ways that make sense? So it was sort of a mix of filtering out facts but also being spiritually truthful to who the person was.
I want to talk a little bit about the way history books are written predominantly by white men who have a tendency to erase people of color and women from stories. I was talking to Lucy Boynton earlier, and we were talking about how we actually had heard Joesph’s story. We’d just heard him called ‘black Mozart,’ which is clearly a reductive way of talking about Joseph by accusing him of being derivative of a white composer.
SR: Absolutely, absolutely. It’s funny that you bring up the black Mozart; we got a question a little bit earlier today. They were like, ‘Did you ever consider calling this movie The Black Mozart, because that’s how you, that’s how so many people who do know him do recognize him?’ But I think the thing that was true for Steven and me was that it was just never even part of the conversation to ever even work to refer to him in that way.
Joseph was always so singular and so special. It was something that we did know, like, obviously, people refer to him as the black Mozart, but it just never even, I think, was absorbed into our psyche while we were making this movie. So in that way, I think it is sort of a no-brainer to this like this is really a celebration of him and his life and his individuality, his talent, and his legacy, and that’s enough.
I think it’s also a special movie or hopefully will be a special movie to communities or cultures who aren’t black; I think that he should be taught about he was an incredible person, you know, despite his race as well, and celebrated for those contributions. So I think it’s really a celebration, or should be a celebration of individuality and self-liberation and self-emancipation, as Steven talks about, which is it’s a beautiful sentiment.
Steven, I want to ask you, speaking of Mozart, the opening, I was looking to see a five-minute clip of that opening earlier this year. And that was the moment I was like, I need to see this movie. You’ve made violin playing look like fencing. Can you talk a bit about music?
SW: I’m thrilled to hear you make that comparison because, as you probably know, having seen the movie, Joseph was such an accomplished human. So, in addition to being a virtuoso violinist, he was also a champion fencer, among many other areas in which he excelled. It is said that his style of violin bowing had been influenced by his prowess as a fencer and, the converse, also that he fenced like a violinist.
So we very much wanted to kind of imbue our visual treatment and our visual rendering of the way in which he performed, you know, we thought of him as kind of a rock star of his time, like Prince or Hendrix of his time. We very much wanted that opening sequence to kind of capture the energy of that of a rock performance or a rap battle between Chevalier and Mozart.
It was a thrilling sequence to film, and fortunately, you know, Kelvin Harrison Jr, who played Josephe, had done an immense amount of work. It’s worth noting that, you know, he trained on the violin for like six hours a day, six months before we started shooting, and even continued while we were filming the movie.
So everything that you see him doing in that opening sequence is Kelvin Harrison Jr. There are no stunt doubles. There’s no cinematic trickery. It’s all about him being a virtuosic violinist, and it was exciting. It was thrilling every time I saw that sequence.
I’d love to talk to you all day, but I’ve only got one minute left. So I’m going to ask you a big question. Do you think Marie Antoinette is a villain?
SR: It’s a great question. I don’t think so.
SW: I don’t think so. No, she’s just complex and layered.
Interesting. Lucy thought she was…
SR: I think that the great thing about movies is everybody has their own subjective interpretation. And that’s, that’s perfect. That’s awesome. That’s as it should be.
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