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Chevalier

Element Pictures, 2022

Director/Writer/Creator:

Stephen Williams / Stefani Robinson

Reading Time:

7 minutes

ChevalierGood Grace (SQBKGUFKX3KJNETU)
00:00 / 07:45

📷 : Licensed from Shutterstock

Chevalier

Honeybush

Image of movie's tea brew

Nonfamily dramas with strong adult and/or socioeconomic themes

Oolong

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Movies and TV shows that make you laugh or involve physical activities like dance and exercise

Reba Chaisson

2023-05-09

I remember my high school modern world history teacher, Miss O’Donnell, walking back and forth as she confidently lectured about the French monarchy and its heads, Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette. Both catered to fellow aristocracy and disregarded their constituents in the process. Miss O’Donnell explained that Marie Antoinette loved her lavish wigs, some of which had replicas of ships built into them. I remember her talking about the French coup d’état, which ended with the beheadings of the king and queen. I also remember some mentions of Joseph Chevalier – but never that he was a Black man, formerly enslaved, nor that he was a classical music virtuoso.


Chevalier is about an African Frenchman who began his life in enslavement on a French plantation. His father, who is also his enslaver, takes his preadolescent son from his mother and enrolls the gifted violinist in a boarding school. With casual indifference, he leaves Joseph with the parting words, [Be the best and no one can deny you anything you want.]. 


Not coincidentally, African American children are often told early on by parents and loved ones that they cannot just be good at what they do, they must be the best at it. It is undue pressure to put on a kid, some might say an impossible aspiration for anyone. But imploring Black children to be the best is likely a universal phenomenon. Although it was centuries ago in another country, even Chevalier’s father and enslaver was keenly aware of the forces his young son would contend with as he grew into a man in France.


Enduring bullying (old-school style) and beatings from some of his privileged White classmates, Chevalier, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Luce, Waves) nonetheless perseveres, seemingly using the abuse as fuel that propels him toward perfection. He strengthens his knowledge of music along with his talent for playing the violin – so much so that by the time he leaves school, he is ready to not only challenge but beat Mozart in an impromptu performance of dueling violins.


Chevalier earns wide popularity in France for his music and leadership role in the French symphony. Having gained entrée to French aristocracy, he has access to wealthy and influential people, and is even close friends with Queen Marie Antoinette. When an opportunity arises to head the French opera house, rumors spread that the queen will be appointing a British musician to the role. She confirms the rumor when Chevalier broaches the topic with her during one of the many lavish aristocratic festivities. Incredulous, he states, “But he isn’t even French!” She responds in a cajoling manner, “You know, things are complicated.” Here, Chevalier learns that even being a renowned musician and composer is not enough to be awarded a coveted appointment in his field, in his own country. His father’s assertion that as the best, he would not be denied, does not come to pass in this case because “things are complicated” – undoubtedly code for: a Black man cannot be allowed to hold such a high position in France.


Upset that he is denied a prestigious position that should have been his without debate or controversy, Chevalier openly challenges the British musician for the role. Enjoying drama and attention, the queen, played by Lucy Boynton (Bohemian Rhapsody, Murder on the Orient Express), agrees. Each must compose an opera and perform it for her. The winner, she adds, will be appointed to head the opera house. So, despite having proved his excellence in music over the years, Chevalier must press himself into a situation to once again prove he is the best, and deserving of an accolade that should have been his all along.


Simultaneous with the happenings in privileged circles, poor and less privileged people in France across the racial spectrum are experiencing angst and anger. Many lack necessities, basic freedoms, and support of the monarchy. Rumblings of a revolt are brewing. Chevalier is aware of these goings-on, but since the happenings are not a part of his world, he is only mildly empathetic. His focus is on composing his opera and winning the prized head of the French house. Along the way however, he falls in love with Marie Josephine, played by Samara Weaving (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Ready or Not), who is the lead in his production and the wife of the powerful Marquis de Montalembert, played by Marton Csokas (The Equalizer, The Amazing Spider-Man 2).


The confluence of love, politics, and a heightened awareness of the salience of race and class in French high society lead to personal disappointments and tragic events for Chevalier. Together, these compel him to use his music for something powerful and life changing, despite a stern warning from the queen against doing so. Moving ahead proves to be consequential, and reveals yet again, that it is not enough to be the best at his craft; in this case, he also had to be obedient as if he were a child.


Many thanks to Stefani Robinson and Stephen Williams for penning this riveting story and pushing it to the big screen. What is striking about this film is how it reveals that very little has changed in the nearly 2 ½ centuries since the French revolution in 1789. Universally, there is no sense of fairness. Power, politics, and personal sentiment still play huge roles in the outcomes of even the most straightforward decisions, and race is just as salient now across lands as it was centuries ago. In the U.S., one need only look at the lopsided racial distributions in wealth, income, health disparities, and other measures of socioeconomic well-being to appreciate this. Also, given the current protests in France over the president’s unilateral decision to extend the retirement age, today’s aristocrats in the country still seem to be operating as King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette did - with little regard for its citizens.

 

Chevalier’s timing reminds me of the 2016 film Hidden Figures, about Drs. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson – three African American mathematicians who worked for NASA and played big roles in the successes of the early Apollo missions in the 1960s. This acknowledgment comes a full fifty years after their accomplishments. It would have been nice to have this comprehensive view of Chevalier during my high school modern world history class.


In elementary and secondary schools, history lessons about Black people largely consist of the enslavement era, memorizing who discovered what and when, and perhaps a bit about the civil rights movement or more specifically, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rarely do the lessons contextualize the existence of African Americans by delving into the political and social climates in which they lived, experiences told from African Americans’ points of view, or the talents of Black people with respect to math, science, and performance arts. Chevalier encompasses these elements, and it does so in an engaging and entertaining way. I am, however, disturbed that the news comes so late, and so I sit at the edge of my seat in anticipation of more.

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