Joseph Bologne, better known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was one of the first black classical composers, perhaps the greatest fencer of his generation, a court favorite in ancien régime France who became a revolutionary on two continents, and the commander of possibly the first nonwhite military division in European history.
His incredible biography could have made an incredible screenplay, and Searchlight Pictures agreed by greenlighting a biopic directed by Stephen Williams, but the writers deliberately confused the movie’s historical timeline, shoehorned his complex life into a trite romantic drama, and added plot points that never really happened to fit an anachronistic racial narrative.
Saint-Georges was a charming ladies’ man, a virtuoso violinist, and friends with luminous contemporaries ranging from Queen Marie Antoinette and Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orléans (later known as Philippe Égalité) to the composers Salieri, Gluck, and Grétry. He conducted operas and networked with early abolitionists such as William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson. French revolutionaries incarcerated him as a political dissident for 18 months.
Saint-Georges did all this in little more than 50 years of life, all while navigating his complicated racial identity, as he was born to a noble white planter father and an enslaved black mother in 1700s France.
Given the rich source material, this should have been a cinematic layup. Unfortunately, the film air-balled. For anyone familiar with his life’s genuine chronology, the errors destroyed the ability to suspend disbelief. And the contrived plot points cheapened the uniqueness of the chevalier’s actual story and its less-than-perfect end.
The film’s first major issue was its puzzling chronology. In reality, Joseph Bologne was born in Guadeloupe in the Caribbean in 1745 and died in Paris in 1799.
His greatest fencing exploits came in the 1760s, his musical prominence peaked in the 1770s and 1780s, and most of his military service occurred in the early 1790s. In “Chevalier,” the filmmakers jumbled the timeline to serve the narrative they created. The film does not mention any distinct years, only using title cards saying, “Before the Revolution” and “Six Months Later.”
Saint-Georges does not age in the movie (besides some childhood flashbacks), though the real-life events spanned nearly 30 years.
A major plot point, for example, revolves around whether Saint-Georges would achieve the pinnacle of French music — being appointed as director of the royally funded Paris Opéra. To earn this position, he composed his first opera, “Ernestine,” during the early stages of the French Revolution. The problem is that, in reality, years or even decades separated these events.
Saint-Georges was considered for the Opéra directorship in 1776. He composed “Ernestine” as an entirely separate effort a year later, and the revolutionary fervor that would destroy the ancien régime began in earnest in 1789. Viewers could overlook this flattened chronology except that the political drama in the streets of Paris directly intertwines with the main arc of the narrative.
A Political Liberal, Not a Radical Egalitarian
“Chevalier” portrays Saint-Georges’ failure to win the directorship on account of his race (something attested to by the historical record) as the final straw in his turn away from the monarchy and toward egalitarian radicalism. His relationship with Marie Antoinette is severed, and he leads a demonstration against the abuses of the crown.
Contrary to this simplistic portrait, the history is more textured. Despite his encounter with overt racial discrimination, Saint-Georges maintained a good working relationship with the French royals through the beginning of the revolution.
He was not a political radical but a liberal seeking a constitutional monarchy modeled on Great Britain. During the Jacobin Reign of Terror, revolutionaries imprisoned Saint-Georges for a year and a half for being insufficiently radical.
Revolutionaries guillotined his friends and political allies Philippe Égalité and Jacques Brissot for the same offense. The French Revolution was an intricate web of political disagreements, military affairs, and mercurial mobs stoked by would-be dictators. Turning it into a facile narrative to propel an invented plot does a disservice to history and the audience.
Racial Narrative over Historical Record
Other plot choices deviated from the historical record to promote a racial narrative.
Saint-Georges, born to a white father and a black mother, was classified as a “mulatto” and treated with racial prejudice. He actively campaigned for slavery’s abolition and worked with other black Frenchmen like Julien Raimond and sympathetic whites like Jacques
Pierre Brissot to advocate for equal rights.
Their campaign to end slavery and unequal treatment succeeded in early 1794, when the French National Convention abolished slavery across its territorial holdings. This remained the case through Saint-Georges’ death in 1799. (Napoleon I reinstituted slavery in 1802.)
The film depicts racism as a driving force in Saint-Georges’ life and his forays into revolutionary politics. This is unsurprising in America’s woke political climate, but the ham-fisted writing runs directly counter to the historical record.
Instead of focusing on Saint-Georges’ actual record of fighting slavery and leading a fully nonwhite military division to defend France — which would be both interesting and historically accurate — the filmmakers chose to falsify facts and invent a new narrative.
“Chevalier” depicts Saint-Georges being stolen from his enslaved mother as a child, forcibly relocated to France, and abandoned in a boarding school by his white father.
The film later reunites mother and son in Paris. She advances the plot by helping him embrace his blackness (including a scene in which she gives him cornrows — no, I’m not kidding) and understand the French society’s injustice toward everyone except rich white men.
She brings Saint-Georges to a gathering of Africans in the streets of Paris, where they play their native music and help him reconnect to his roots. She also tearfully explains how she had constantly tried to escape his father’s plantation in Guadeloupe to desperately seek her lost son.
The melodrama plays into the film’s conclusion by transforming a favorite of the royal court into a true revolutionary.
In reality, Saint-Georges was not abandoned by his father or stolen from his mother. His stint in a boarding school lasted two years before his father — and his black mother — moved to live with him full-time in Paris.
Sending children to boarding schools in the metropole was not uncommon for wealthy colonial planters. This was not done to punish mixed-race children but was meant to provide better opportunities for the children of nobility who lived abroad. After all, the schooling in Paris surpassed anything found in the Caribbean.
The uncommon thing in Saint-Georges’ experience was that both his father and mother came to France and lived together as a mixed-race family. Nanon, his mother, remained with him in France for the rest of her life, even after his father returned to the plantation in Guadeloupe.
For his entire life, Saint-Georges’ relationship with his race was thorny. Not only did French society see him as not white enough, but blacks also saw him as not black enough.
Late in life, he went to the French colony of Saint-Domingue — then undergoing the Haitian Revolution — to aid the people in ending their civil war. During his time in Haiti, of which we have minor documentation, Saint-Georges was alienated by all sides of the conflict, finding himself repudiated by whites, blacks, and mixed-race factions on the island.
This nuance undermines the crude idea of racial solidarity that America’s modern politics thrives on, so the writers left it out of the film.
Forgetting the Best Parts
The ending of the movie is spectacularly awful if you know the real life of this incredible man.
After an anti-monarchy performance that never happened, the screen cuts to black. Text appears saying that Saint-Georges led a nonwhite combat division in the Revolutionary Wars and that Napoleon banned his music in 1802 upon reinstituting slavery.
The film glosses over the most fascinating and tumultuous years of his life — 1789 to 1799 —with a single sentence. It ignores his death as a poor and broken man after being betrayed by the revolution in France and his black compatriots in Haiti. This is a failure of epic proportions.
Reducing Saint-Georges’ truly amazing life story into a generic romantic period piece shows that the filmmakers have contempt for history and a low view of their audience’s ability to handle a nuanced story.
The real-life tale of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges — and the French Revolution more broadly — deserves a full telling in all its complexities and tragedies.
“Chevalier,” unfortunately, is a paint-by-numbers piece of a movie, bowdlerizing history and inventing a story that fits neatly into modern political conceptions. Quelle dommage.