CLEVELAND, OH – The struggle to become a black star in a white world is nothing new.
This familiar experience dates back to the 18th century when Joseph of Boulogne and Chevalier de Saint-Georges – the illegitimate son of an African slave and a French plantation owner – made a splash in French society as a famous violinist and fencer. And a military officer.
A frequent member of Marie Antoinette’s court with an unhappy obligatory love affair to boot, the Parisian rock star’s insecure relationship with celebrities has left him feeling like an outsider within his hapless community.
The Story of Black Mozart, a confused title if any, from the amazing screenwriter Stephanie Robinson. As the sole screenwriter on Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” series, as well as other Hollywood writing rooms, she knows how to deftly navigate minority voices, opinions, and sensitivities.
The result is Stephen Williams’ Night Out (Lost, The Americans, The Walking Dead, Watchmen) and opens Friday in theaters.
We recently caught up with Robinson to discuss Bologna, “Atlanta,” and Marie Antoinette’s neck.
Hi Stephanie. Congratulations on the movie. How did you discover Joseph Bologna’s story?
The first time I read about it was when I was 15 or 16 years old. My mom gave me something to remember. There was enough information in there to really whet my appetite. He had a crazy life. It’s crazy – and I say that with great emotion. He was a swordsman and rider on horseback, lived at Versailles with the king and taught music to Marie Antoinette. He was incredibly talented on the violin. It was one of those things where I read enough about this guy that, even if it’s not the whole story, it’s cool, it looks incredibly cinematic, and it’s big and epic. When I read about him in high school, I was like somebody’s going to make a movie about this guy.
Under the auspices of personal rebellion and mass revolution, Chevalier delves into racial injustice, politics, and fame. When it came time to write the script, where did you start?
I feel all of it — the richness and complexity are the things that appealed to me because it was so layered and multi-faceted. I didn’t want it to be just a movie about racial politics. I didn’t want this movie to be about music and what it was like to shift within the music industry at the time. I didn’t want it to be just about the French Revolution and her relationship with Marie Antoinette. All this together painted a richer and richer picture of that person’s life. It was really attractive.
Being a black man at the French court in Versailles, there is a line in the movie where Bologna felt like an incantation. Since your writing career often puts you in male-dominated writing rooms, we think you can relate.
Admittedly, early on in my career, there were times when I was the only person of color in the writers’ room. It kind of became a mantra because now you’re talking to a whole bunch of people. The pressure on your shoulders is something you didn’t ask for. I worked so hard to be there but at the same time there was a sense of loneliness. Like Joseph, you feel somehow in and out. I think he was a real friend of Marie Antoinette. They had a real relationship but it cannot be denied that France profited from slavery at the same time as his girlfriend. The gap is there and it’s really weird to be in and out at the same time. It’s a feeling – obviously not on that scale – that I think I can relate to.
Is it too much to suggest a connection between “Knight” and the recently created and critically acclaimed episode “Atlanta,” which depicts how light-skinned blacks are treated differently than themselves?
I’m sure they are, but not on purpose. But maybe I agree with you, I think it’s true. What you comment on is how these things take different forms over the years. Such kind of similar vibrations and similar dynamics, it spills over into other areas and changes over time. It’s an interesting comparison for sure.
The other is a comparison of Knight vs. Atlanta Despite the quarter-millennium gap, we’re still struggling with the same issues. Having said that, are you optimistic about the future?
Of course I am always an optimist because I have to be. The alternative is a very dark, nihilistic, elusive place. In this way, I have to keep hope alive because it’s what keeps you from getting out of bed every day, but I think the fact that this movie was made is enough to celebrate. He is someone who has been largely marginalized and forgotten for hundreds of years. So the fact that we are here today talking about this person is enough to be optimistic about that and hopefully the curiosity continues. It’s when we start acting like we know it all and become so ignorant and closed off, how we test our world and how we test each other, it’s a dangerous place to be.
Finally, what does he say every time actress Lucy Boynton appears on screen as Marie Antoinette recoils as we stare down her neck?
(laughs) It’s kind of the dramatic irony of it all. You’re absolutely right, I love the way you put it, “Look at his neck.” Yeah, I mean, this thing falls off. This is the interesting part. It is as if they internalize the idea of absolute power or that property internalizes it – “We own it and it is divine and it is our right.” You see how quickly these things can change. I think strength is an illusion. It really comes from you. In this way, it’s a very poetic way of acknowledging the fact that she’s ending her life in a very strange way.