“Chevalier” opens with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (played by Joseph Prowen) performing for a crowd of adoring aristocrats, before our titular figure steps out from that audience to challenge him to a violin duel. 

The film is about the life of Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a Black musician and composer whose work had been largely lost to the ravages of post-revolution France.

The showdown between these two men is framed with more vigor and intrigue than the average costume drama set in this same time period, with Bologne’s charisma and swagger overtaking even Mozart’s considerable presence. At one point Bologne hops off the stage, playing into the stands, with director Stephen Williams’ camera lingering on a petrified white woman watching in horror as his string noodling begins to sound like an electric guitar. It’s an audience grabbing moment of triumph. We love to see Black folks succeed in areas where success was all-but impossible. 

The most timeless and heartbreaking theme of the film, however, is this: talent can never outpace racism. Then and now, racism is still a factor that no Black person can escape. No amount of excellence can save us.

Early in the film, a seven-year-old Bologne, the son of settler George Bologne (Jim High) and his wife’s enslaved personal maid Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo), is dropped off at a prestigious school. At the mere sight of the mulatto child, the headmaster warns George that “there are better ways to hide such indiscretions.” But George insists his son, bastard though he may be, is something special. 

“Such gifts should not be allowed to languish on a plantation,” he says.

Before leaving the child there, George looks into his son’s face and tells him that, above all else, he must be excellent. 

“Nobody can tear down an excellent Frenchman.”

It is with that maxim in mind that Bologne lives his life. He’s an exemplary performer and an impactful storyteller. These skills allow him to schmooze at all the high society gatherings, despite his skin color, and as most of France suffers and starves. Still, despite his wit and talent, the long shadow of racism follows him. Actress Minnie Driver plays an aging opera star who makes a pass at Bologne, comparing his bow to what she supposes must be his own ethnically enlarged genitalia.

Eventually, Bologne loses everything through a series of rude racial awakenings. Forsaken by Queen Marie Antoinette, who he had developed a close relationship with, and blocked from a prestigious opera position he earned fair and square, Bologne can only lament, “One moment I was a man of France, but now I am only a negro.” 

Newsflash, pal, you were a negro the whole time! 

There is something familiar in watching how Bologne conducts himself for the masses. It’s much like some present-day artists and athletes who firmly believe their talent transcends their race. As with his introductory duel with Mozart, Bologne is competitive to a fault. When Bologne boasts that he’s never lost a bout, and must be reminded that opera is not fencing, we see the same pugilistic approach to art that Kanye West brings to awards shows.

But Bologne’s dedication isn’t to the music itself, but to the status and class where his talent could afford him special treatment. Friends try to get him involved in politics, and he has no interest. When Bologne is reunited with his now-free mother, she is surprised at his materialistic obsessions, pointing out that the money he spends on dresses for her could feed most of the city. There is a very telling moment in the second act, where Nanon is humming a tune to her son she used to sing to him as a child, and suggests he find a way to use it in his opera. In return, he tells her that there are standards that must be honored. 

Of course, after he’s lost everything—and had conversations with other Black people for the first time in his life—that piece of music finds its way into the film’s climactic number, not unlike Wendy and Lisa’s demo tape in “Purple Rain.” But by the time Bologne is ready to take a stand for something other than his own self-importance, it feels like too little too late. 

“Chevalier” works in that it will definitely inspire loads of people to do further research on the real man behind this fictional narrative, but it otherwise proves a sad little tale. A continent away and centuries removed, this myth of Black excellence is still foisted upon unsuspecting Black youths, with a harsh lesson they all must learn the hard way.

“Chevalier” is currently playing at The Charles and will likely be available to rent and purchase on VOD in the coming weeks.