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'Chevalier' tells the forgotten story of a Black composer in the 1700s

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The new movie "Chevalier" opens with a concert in Paris conducted by Mozart himself. Mid-performance, a young Black man strides forward and asks...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHEVALIER")

KELVIN HARRISON: (As Joseph Bologne) May I play with you, monsieur?

JOSEPH PROWEN: (As Mozart) All right, fine. Come up here. I assume you know this piece.

HARRISON: (As Joseph Bologne) Yes, monsieur.

PROWEN: (As Mozart) Well, I hope this won't be embarrassing for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: The two take turns playing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: Far from being embarrassed, he captivates the audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHEVALIER")

PROWEN: (As Mozart) Who the hell is that?

KELLY: That was Joseph Bologne, also known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The son of a French plantation owner and an enslaved Senegalese woman, he was a celebrated composer and violinist in 1700s Paris. His concerts were frequently attended by Queen Marie Antoinette. But if the name Joseph Bologne is not ringing a bell, you're not alone.

HARRISON: My dad's a classical music teacher, and he never knew about Joseph. And all we did growing up was listen to classical music.

KELLY: That's Kelvin Harrison Jr., who plays Joseph Bologne. He says after he got the part, he went to tell his dad about it.

HARRISON: He was just like, what? How'd I never hear about this cat? You know, we started listening to the music, and he was blown away. He was like, this guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LONDON CONTEMPORARY ORCHESTRA'S "VIOLIN CONCERTO IN G MAJOR, OP. 8, NO. 2: I. ALLEGRO (FROM "CHEVALIER")")

HARRISON: You know, my dad really had a field day with him.

KELLY: The new movie "Chevalier" hopes to introduce a wider audience to Joseph Bologne, a man that some have dubbed the Black Mozart. When we spoke the other day, I asked Kelvin Harrison Jr. for his thoughts on that nickname.

HARRISON: I think it's fascinating that everybody wants to compare simply because Mozart was the notable composer that we all know of. But arguably, Joseph kind of came first. You can see certain lines from Joseph's work that Mozart actually took and just raised it up two, three whole steps. You hear the same melodies and some of the inspiration, and he had so much flavor. But Mozart was the acceptable guy to listen to at the time. He was the one we could look at as the hotshot, the celebrity of the moment. And...

KELLY: Yeah.

HARRISON: Joseph was still just a man who was lucky enough to be even knighted as a chevalier at the time.

KELLY: Is that actually you playing, like, the amazing finger work, what we see on camera?

HARRISON: Yep. And it was me doing all those finger works, all those bow strokes.

KELLY: Did you play violin before this film?

HARRISON: So my first instrument was the violin. I got into a program in elementary school, and I guess I caught on to it fairly quickly. And then Katrina happened, and I lost the violin. It was damaged. And I just - I changed instruments, and I started playing piano and trumpet because my dad was like, if you're going to live in my house, you're going to play an instrument because he's a music teacher. So when I got the job, I knew I had enough of a grasp on the instrument because of my previous time that - I thought it was going to be movie magic to an extent. And then...

KELLY: Right.

HARRISON: Stephen Williams, our director, was like, no, absolutely not.

KELLY: The skill level you're playing at is obviously not elementary school. It's amazing.

HARRISON: Yeah, it took six months. I got the job when I was in Australia shooting "Elvis," and then immediately I was like, I have to get back home. And I went to my dad, and he got a violin. I got a violin. We started working on our dexterity because that was the biggest thing - making sure those fingers were mobile enough. He's a showman, Joseph. So it's tricky. But you know, you just - six hours a day, every day for six months and so...

KELLY: Oh, wow.

HARRISON: You hope for the best after that.

KELLY: This dude was so insanely talented. He also happened to be the best fencer in Paris. Really? Is that historically accurate? Do we know?

HARRISON: Well, you know, he was - he beat Poinsette (ph). I mean, Poinsette was actually documented to be the best fencer of the time. And it was documented that Joseph beat him in a bout. You know, there's a book called "Virtuoso Of The Sword And Bow" by Gabriel Banat. And he kind of chronicles his entire life from start to finish and really getting into the details of specifically La Boessiere's academy and some of the players that went through the academy and, you know, the envy they experience, how quick he was on his feet. They describe him as catlike. You know, it makes sense historically that he was just this incredible feline of a fencer.

KELLY: So did you have to learn to fence to play this role, too?

HARRISON: Yes, I did. It was - that was - actually, I think it was a lot easier than the violin. But I think with the schedule of the violin, it became harder.

KELLY: Because you were doing, you just told me, six hours of violin a day. So where did fencing fit in?

HARRISON: Oh, my God. So the six hours started before we started shooting, and then we started shooting 10 hours a day. But then after that, I would have to go to fencing for an hour, and then I would do violin for another couple hours, and then I would start learning my lines for the next day.

KELLY: Oh, my goodness.

HARRISON: It was like school.

KELLY: Wow. The movie is a lot of fun to watch, as people may be gathering. It also has moments that are very uncomfortable to watch. I'm thinking of some of the scenes where Joseph is grappling with the racial politics of the era, the racist politics of the era. Were they hard to play?

HARRISON: You know, there are times. There are times when things become very heavy on your heart. And, you know, we shot in Prague, which isn't Paris, but there's still a lot of history. And one of the theaters we shot in was where Mozart premiered "Don Giovanni."

KELLY: Yeah.

HARRISON: You can go through the halls of that theater, and you can still see photos of plays like "Othello" done in blackface. Digesting some of the fact that it's not fully removed, we're not fully out of it in some respects and it was even worse at the time can be heavy on your heart. But I also like to keep in the mindset that at the end of the day, it's a privilege to tell the story. But it's not lost on me in some of those moments, you know?

KELLY: Yeah. There is a line that struck me.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHEVALIER")

JIM HIGH: (As George Bologne) Do not give anyone any reason to tear you down. No one may tear down an excellent Frenchman.

KELLY: It made me wonder - as I watched you on screen, wonder if you've ever felt this way. Did that resonate for you?

HARRISON: Oh, 100%. I mean, I think I made a whole career out of that kind of quote.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Being a Frenchman aside. Yeah.

HARRISON: Being a Frenchman aside, yeah, other than on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans (laughter). You know, my dad is such a tough competitor, and I want to say competitive because he moves, as a musician, like an athlete. And the way he taught us to have discipline, the way he taught us to practice, the way he taught us to just move through life was so specific. And so - it's so much resilience. And that movie "Waves" - the line where I was like, you have to work 10 times harder as a Black man to be great - you know, what was so fascinating for me with this movie was seeing how that line just hops from generation to generation to generation to make up for the lost time and the lack of opportunity and the disregard for who we were as people of color. I definitely felt that.

KELLY: Well, Kelvin Harrison, this has been a total pleasure. Thank you for talking to us about this new movie.

HARRISON: Oh, thank you for watching, and thank you for wanting to talk about it. It means a lot to Joseph, I'm sure, and to me. So thank you.

KELLY: Kelvin Harrison - he is the star of the new movie "Chevalier."

(SOUNDBITE OF TAKASHI NISHIZAKI PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "I. ALLEGRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.