We Need More Heroes like Chevalier

Young, revolutionary protagonists set the stage for a better Hollywood.

7 mins read

Young, Revolutionary Protagonists Set the Stage for a Better Hollywood

Theatrical Release: 4.21.2023

Rating: PG-13

Director: Stephen Williams

Writer: Stefani Robinson

Starring: Kelvin Harrison, Jr.

When you think of your heroes, who do you see?

Traditionally, U.S. biopics have focused on athletes, musicians, and political figures. People in these industries often have the fame and drama that filmmakers are confident they can capitalize on to ensure audiences will show up.

But what if we wanted to see a different journey dramatized on screen?

In the last decade, at least 25 films about true stories of African-Americans centered on music, sports, and key figures during the American slave trade and Civil Rights Movement. Emmitt Till and the Tulsa Massacre were the subject of HBO series Watchmen (2019) and Lovecraft Country (2020), as well as ABC miniseries Women of the Movement (2022). The outliers were the film Hidden Figures (2016), about the black women who worked for NASA during the Space Race, and Netflix miniseries Self-Made (2020), about millionaire beauty entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker.

As in cinema, classrooms also focus more on well-known heroes for inspiration, but the premiere of Hidden Figures led to an increase in both interest and programs for black girls in STEM. It not only gave overdue recognition to trailblazers, but also opened doors for young people passionate about math and science who needed to see themselves in those roles. Films like these continue to prove the importance of on-screen representation and diversity, as well as their ability to influence systemic change.

Similarly, the wide release of Chevalier (2023) supports diverse representation in classical and orchestral music rather than just in popular genres. The film is “based on the true story of composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the illegitimate son of an African slave and a French plantation owner, who rises to heights in French society as a composer before an ill-fated love affair.” Sometimes referred to as “Black Mozart,” he is the earliest European of African descent to earn widespread acclaim as a classical musician.

Set in the late 1700s of the Ancien Régime in France, we meet an adult Bologne in a concert duel with the famous Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, an exciting introduction written with some creative license. In a childhood flashback, he’s brought by his French father from their plantation to a boarding school to bolster his talents, but feels abandoned as the only biracial child, separated from his enslaved Senegalese mother. After a present-day performance, Bologne is named “Chevalier de Saint-Georges” by the queen of France, Marie Antoinette. He has an incredible rise in high society, earning popularity, respect, and admirers. However, he struggles with his identity and need for validation, evident as he campaigns to become head of the Paris Opera in a time of legal racial discrimination and the French Revolution.

As much as we are invested in the powerful music, beautiful costume design, and compelling performances, we are equally intrigued by Bologne’s relationships and personal journey. His friendship with the queen is tested as citizens wage protests. He reconnects with friend Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, a royal and active supporter of the revolution who wants him to get involved. Bologne also has an affair with opera singer Marie-Josephine de Montalembert, despite interracial marriage being illegal and her husband being a high-ranking military official. As the obstacles mount against him, he reconnects with his mother Nanon, and composes a protest concert as a revolutionary act.

The film explores social issues such as racial discrimination, class inequality, and political unrest in a direct and sophisticated voice, without being heavy-handed or preachy. It also highlights the injustices Bologne faced without depicting gratuitous brutality that can be traumatic for viewers, which makes it an excellent biopic we all can enjoy and learn from.

The epilogue notes that Napoleon Bonaparte reinstituted slavery in the French colonies, after which most of Bologne’s music was banned and destroyed. It wasn’t until recently that musicians and historians recovered his compositions and life story, making the film even more of a revelation and important example for youth, especially at a time when history is being erased in classroom curriculums and book bans across the U.S.

Of nearly 20 biopics in the last decade featuring white protagonists, the films weren’t limited to just athletes, musicians, and politicians. They included actresses, artists, business magnates, fashion designers, royalty, and televangelists. By contrast, there was only one Latinx-American biopic, Cesar Chavez (2014), about the Chicano agricultural workers’ rights activist. There were no biopics featuring Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders, or Native Americans – a travesty Hollywood still has to contend with. Regardless of anyone’s gender or ethnic background, we should all know the leaders who came before us – whether we want to be violinists, scientists, writers, or anything else in this world.

It’s true that we can draw inspiration from anywhere, but having a diverse range of images and stories for potential heroes is paramount to reaching those in the margins. Gen Z and Gen Alpha deserve to learn as many paths to a bright future as possible, and when they can’t see it directly around them, it’s up to creators of film and television to help pave the way.

Want to hear Joseph Bologne‘s music? Check out the Spotify playlist dedicated to his work and the Apple Music playlist from the film’s soundtrack.

Looking for U.S. inspiration? Check out Grace Moore of Brooklyn, NY, who composed music for the New York Philharmonic at 12 years old in 2020!

Cierra Lockett

Cierra Lockett is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and Loyola Marymount University with an MFA in Writing & Producing for Television. Raised in Memphis, she currently works in Los Angeles as a Production Coordinator in the MTV Entertainment Group at ViacomCBS, where she supports TV movies and series from prep to premiere. She loves culture, food, and trivia and board games. (She/her)

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