Chevalier de Saint-George: the movie & the true story

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Chevalier is a 2022 movie directed by Stephen Williams, to be released in 2023. It’s the fascinating true story of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a prominent personality who lived in France in the second half of the 1700s. The movie shows how his life went and how racism prevented him from reaching higher accomplishments as an orchestra director and also in life. This article will highlight the main elements of Chevalier’s real life to enjoy the movie better.

You can find the official trailer of the movie below.

CHEVALIER | Official Trailer | Searchlight Pictures

The true story of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Joseph Bologne was born in 1745 in Guadeloupe, in the French Antilles. He was the son of an important planter from a noble family, Georges de Bologne Saint-Georges, and his wife’s African servant. His father acknowledged Joseph, but that didn’t prevent him from becoming the target of racism for his whole life because of his skin color. He could never acquire the noble titles of his father: his title as Chevalier arrived when he was 21, after becoming an officer of the king’s bodyguard.

As a kid, he moved to Paris and lived with his mother and the presence of his father until he was 19. During these years, he acquired his most famous talents: as a swordsman and as a violinist. His skills in fencing made him one of the best swordsmen in Europe (it is believed that he lost only one match in his entire life). When he was 17, he managed to beat a fencing master who mocked him for his color, and that represented a symbolic victory for the part of society that opposed slavery.

If his talent as a swordsman was recognized by everybody, his skills as a talented violinist met the skepticism of most parts of society, which didn’t accept the presence of “a mulatto” in the prestigious contexts of society. There is no official documentation about how he learned to play the violin with such great mastery, but he was already a violin prodigy when he was 19.

As a young adult, he was the director of his orchestra, considered one of the finest in Europe. Even Queen Marie Antoniette regularly attended his concerts, and Haydn wrote six symphonies commissioned by Chevalier, which became famous as Haydn’s Paris Symphonies. As the website of LA Opera points out, at some point, he proposed his role as director of the Paris Opera, but three of the leading sopranos wrote to the Queen, stating that it was unacceptable that “a mulatto” directed them. This convinced Chevalier de Saint-Georges to withdraw his application.

The last part of his life was marked by his determination to fight the injustices related to his discrimination. After the French revolution declared the equality of all French people, Chevalier de Saint-Georges joined the Revolutionary Army. He shows his talent also in that dimension when in 1792, he was part of a special legion that became famous as “Légion St-Georges” because of his performances. Nevertheless, doubts were raised afterward upon his merits, and he was dismissed as a Colonel and imprisoned for 18 months.

After the imprisonment, in the last years of his life, he still tried to define his position in society with less success. He moved to Saint-Domingue (today known as Haiti) but was disappointed by how a civil war changed the community there. He returned to Paris when he was 51 and became an orchestra director again. He also tried to join the army again, but his application was refused. He died two years later, in 1799, because of gangrene.

The movie Chevalier represents his life as an “untold true story,” highlighting how Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, wasn’t much known today. It’s a story of a personality with outstanding talents who had to fight prejudice and injustices for his whole life because of his skin color. A story that can probably teach us something important still today.

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