“He was the rockstar of the time,” says actor Kelvin Harrison Jr of Joseph Bologne, a renowned French composer who, despite being widely appraised for his talents and granted the high title of Chevalier de Saint-Georges by Queen Marie Antoinette, was known for decades solely by the belittling moniker Black Mozart.
Upon learning of Bologne’s fascinating yet overlooked life, Atlanta writer Stefani Robinson worked with Watchmen director Stephen Williams and Cyrano star Harrison Jr to shine a light on the composer’s legacy and correct a longstanding historical erasure with Chevalier, arriving in UK cinemas this week.
“When you first get the job, you kind of go, ‘Wow, I would love to be a soldier that will fight for Joseph’s legacy and for his name and work to be seen and heard.’ Then, once you get into the process, there is a moment when you are no longer a fan, you are an actor with a specific assignment, and my assignment is to make sure I find the humanity in this person.”
This humanity fuels Harrison Jr’s moving performance as the Chevalier, the latest real-life figure in the sprawling career of the young American actor.
Bologne joins blues musician BB King and political leaders Fred Hampton and Martin Luther King in the roster of iconic figures previously portrayed by the Chevalier lead. On playing real-life people, the actor compared the experience to a “simulation”.
“There are people who I admire and find fascinating and I don’t have a lot of time in my life to sit down and read a biography. It’s a different experience when you live it out, dress like them, and talk like them. I get a deeper understanding of not only my personal history as a Black man but also of who these people are as artists.