The Black Mozart in Cuba Review

AKA: Mozart Noir a Cuba
Genre: Historical Documentary/Music Documentary
Year Released: 2006
Distributor: ArtMattan
Origin: Guadeloupe/Cuba/Trinidad & Tobago
Running Time: 52 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Le Mozart Noir: Reviving a Legend, The Legendary Chevalier de Saint-Georges, William Grant Still: Trailblazer from the South, Tango Negro, Gurumbe: Afro-Andalusian Memories, Black Classical Music: The Forgotten History, The Black Composers
Notes:
-This documentary is part of a 2 disc set called “Blacks in Europe: 15th to 18th Centuries” from ArtMattan. It is unrelated to the other film Gurumbe: Afro-Andalusian Memories though.
Fun Facts:
-The Black Mozart In Cuba was written, directed, and edited by husband/wife duo Steve and Stephanie James. Steven is originally from Trinidad, but moved to Guadeloupe when he married Stephanie. Both of them own one of the few production studios in that Caribbean nation called Shakta Productions. Their other projects have included Fan Do Brazil, Le Gardien du Non-Retour, and Coeur d’Ayiti.

-Joseph Boulounge, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges was born in Baillif, Guadeloupe. It’s currently a suburb of Basse-Terre (the capital city that’s not to be confused with Basseterre, St. Kitts & Nevis). There’s 5,600 people living in that town. Ballif also has the country’s national park that’s loaded with waterfalls, natural wildlife, and hiking trails among other things.

-Anime Fan Bonus: One of Saint-Georges’ opponents in his fencing endeavors was Le Chevalier D’eon. Yes, the same real-life androgynous knight that was the figure for that fantasy/horror series by Production I. G. fought against the Black Mozart in the 18th century.

-Laura Alonso is a 2nd generation ballerina and worked with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba for 25 years. In addition to her work in ballet with her home country, she has also collaborated with the top troupes in England and Denmark.

-Saint-Georges’ sole remaining opera “L’Amant Anonyme” was played for the first time ever in November 2020 when it was performed by the Los Angeles Opera company.

It can be quite fascinating reviewing something that can involve lots of firsts. I managed to cover two Caribbean nations to meet my 2021 geography quota. This was also my first husband/wife created work that I’ve reviewed on Iridium Eye. That’s all fine, but this is the first time I’ve reviewed anything involving someone who was a classical composer, fencer, and general all at once. I’ve kind of reviewed something with classical music with Only When I Dance and this individual made ballets. I’ve reviewed something with Fencing with the Beatrice documentary. Classical music was something I did grow up on a bit when my late grandfather took us to symphonies up in the Twin Cities whenever we went up there. Yes, even when I was in elementary school, I had to wear a suit for those events and my sister and I were the youngest people in the venue at the time. When I saw the title of this Guadeloupean documentary and reading a tiny bit about this individual, I was very intrigued as this not only fits the Iridium Eye ethos on so many levels, but this would be all too perfect of a choice for my Black History Month series.

While I wouldn’t call myself a classical music fan, I could name multiple composers, but I surely never heard of this one who was removed from the history books for two centuries.

The Black Mozart In Cuba deals with the life and legacy of a forgotten composer, soldier, fencer, and violin virtuoso Joseph Boulogne, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He was a Guadeloupean renaissance man who was the son of a French parliament member Georges de Boulogne de Saint-Georges and one of his wife’s Senegalese slaves Anne Nanon. Despite his biracial heritage barring him from royal privileges, he still managed to be educated in France at one of the top boarding schools. Saint-Georges managed to thrive in his studies, became one of the top fencers in all of Europe, became a master as well as an innovator at the violin, composed various symphonies and operas, and he was the first Black general of the French army that got his own regiment known as Legion Saint-Georges. Unfortunately, his creative works and achievements were removed from the history and text books. Two years after he died in Paris due to complications from a bladder infection, Napoleon struck his name from the records and reinstated slavery for the French government. For over two centuries, he was unknown, but in the early 00s, there was a revival of sorts of discovering his music and life. Not just in France where Saint-Georges spent a good portion of his life away from Guadeloupe, but in Cuba of all places. Despite the Chevalier never living or visiting Cuba, there was a huge interest in his music in that country when his history was discovered and they wanted to give positive representation for a Caribbean classical composer. At the time, there were ballet adaptations as well as symphonies handled by multi-ethnic dance troupes and symphonies. All the Cubans involved in this project regardless if they were Latinx, Caucasian, or Black wanted the works of Saint-Georges to be more known as they collaborated with various art organizations as well as government members of France and Guadeloupe.

Reviewing documentaries can be such an educational experience for me as one could tell from some of my previous reviews, but this might be one of the most informative I’ve seen. Before hearing about Saint-Georges, the only other Black composer I’ve heard of was William Grant Still whom I’ve shockingly found out about in my music appreciation class during my sophomore year of college. I had no idea the Caribbean had composers who made such exquisite music centuries ago. Hearing some of the music was certainly fascinating and even hearing his story was eye-opening to me. Why didn’t I know about this guy when I was younger? Even one of the orchestra members in Cuba had a very similar sentiment. I wasn’t sure if said orchestra member was fully Black or biracial since he did have a lighter complexion (I certainly won’t judge him about his skin tone because screw colorism!), but he mentioned when he learned about all these big-name composers, it only consisted of white musicians, but seeing a composer who looked like him gave him a newfound confidence in making music. No disagreements here even if some of my reasoning is on principle in my case. This is why representation matters. The interviews and narration were so informative and enlightening as people from multiple countries, races, and walks of life detail what they know and researched about his life and music. There’s an acknowledgement with the racism that went on in Cuba even to this day, but many of the interviewees see this revival of Saint-Georges as a way to right a racist wrong of sorts. The ballet production scenes were very intriguing even though I’m not the biggest fan of that form of art. There were even dramatic re-enactments interspersed between the interview footage, b-roll, concerts, and the ballet scenes. There was a nice assemblage of scenes in this presentation which I enjoyed. The music involved Saint-Georges’ portfolio, obviously, but there were also moments of traditional African and Caribbean drumming going on which was a nice touch. While a documentary like this could easily lend itself to hagiography status, there were some flaws presented in his life like how he never committed to a relationship despite being a “Black Don Juan” or not being self-aware in certain situations. Not going to lie, I wanted to see some positive Black representation in a documentary instead of something involving atrocities happening to Africans or the African diaspora like Hate Crimes in the Heartland, Cold Case Hammerskjöld, Preying Missionaries, or any review I’ve covered involving genocides against those in the continent. Seeing The Black Mozart In Cuba definitely worked in that regard.

It was so amazing hearing Saint-Georges’s music and his life’s story. I did think about the title and how it played out in the film. The Cuba aspect was self-explanatory since most of it was filmed there, but I was very curious about the “Black Mozart” moniker that was thrown around until the narrator pulled off a truth bomb that showed how much I didn’t know about classical music even when it involved some of the biggest names that are still taught to this day. Saint-Georges actually influenced Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart himself and the narrator even has the courage to say this fact in the form of a question: “Why isn’t Mozart called the white Saint-Georges?”. Really let that one sink in for a minute. Even some of the most uneducated people out there have at least heard of Mozart, but I can see the underlying educational racism in the textbooks because god forbid students of all ages find out that one of the most famous composers of all time was influenced by a melanated musician! If they made an Amadeus remake today and had Saint-Georges as an accurately represented character, so many racists would have a childish meltdown much like when they found out about Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s no wonder the people who’ve discovered them of all ethnic groups had their minds blown that this multi-disciplined composer made so much quality music while also being of African descent who lived during that time. Real talk, if I found out about Saint-Georges when I was a kid, I might actually be in the classical music scene as a musician (maybe a classical guitarist or concert pianist) or at the very least a composer by now. This is why representation matters because people get a self-esteem boost when they see someone like them succeed as well as doing something innovative. A documentary like this was almost made to get the Iridium Eye treatment. Not just because it’s an indie documentary let alone made from filmmakers from a lesser-known Caribbean nation, but because I’ve covered several projects from animators, musicians, and creators who never got credit or massive exposure for their work. Whether it’s documentaries involving various innovators who aren’t talked about in school or the multiple examples of film plagiarism cases. It frustrates me that these great innovators in multiple fields get overlooked and obscured despite influencing those far more popular than them (or worse case scenario: getting ripped off by more popular people). Seriously, The Black Mozart In Cuba was highly educational as well as engaging no matter what one’s ethnic background is.

However, there were some sour notes in between with this Guadeloupean documentary. The most obvious one for me was the cinematography. I don’t know if this was mainly an issue with the film masters or the DVD encoding, but there were multiple cases of aliasing and pixelation. Some parts felt like I was watching a low-res bootleg DVD copy even though I watched the official North American release. The encoding aside, I thought the post-production effects with the titles and credits were quite cheesy as well as dated. I noticed that the end credits didn’t mention the people who were part of the cinematic re-enactments even though the ones in the ballet were mentioned mainly since some of them were interviewed for this film. There were parts of the story that felt were too abridged. One thing that I really wanted to know about was a part of his later life where he was sent to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. They said it was part of a conspiracy, but it was never mentioned in detail for these false accusations to begin with. Since this documentary involves high art with classical music, operas, and ballet, don’t expect everyone to be into this. Art music and classical music isn’t for everyone and could be seen as too hoity-toity as well as going over their heads. I’m sure some people think my reviewing portfolio can be too artsy or at the very least serious. Wait, who am I to judge? I’ve also reviewed (as well as enjoying) parody movies, action anime, and even some pro wrestling documentaries. Sometimes I wonder why I have the conflicting tastes that I do with what I watch. The Black Mozart In Cuba isn’t something I could picture everyone liking even with the several jewels of knowledge on display.

The Black Mozart In Cuba was a huge surprise to me on so many levels, and it was certainly a very pleasant surprise. The history with Saint-Georges was phenomenal and one could make an actual biopic of itself. Seeing so many people of different colors, creeds, and nationalities appreciating the Chevalier’s works was so amazing. I never felt this positively watching a documentary in a long time. Yes, the production was lackluster which I won’t lie about, but the content more than makes up for it. Major props to the people in Cuba, Guadelopue, France, and the James’s for having Saint-Georges’s story told! Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges may have departed from this world physically in 1799, but his memory and music became revived and will live on for future generations.

Adjustable Point System:
Add 1 point if you love classical music, ballet, highbrow art, or even lesser-known parts of Black History.
Subtract 1-3 points if you need immaculate production.
Subtract 2-3 points if you’re not into classic music.

Pros:
-Amazing stories about Saint-Georges
-Wonderful music and ballet scenes
-Phenomenal historical facts on display

Cons:
-Mediocre visual production
-Some stories were skipped or severely abridged
-Could bore people not into classical music

Final Score: 9/10 points

Content Warning: The Black Mozart in Cuba doesn’t have many inappropriate things about it. There is some artistic nudity with some paintings of the Africans. Saint-Georges was brought out of infidelity where a slave owner had intercourse with one of his wife’s slaves. In the ballet biopic, there is an interpretive dance that involves the sexual relationship. Marie Antoinette’s execution is mentioned and depicted in the ballet. While it’s not bloody, you do see a beheading going on even if it involved a prop. The topics of racism and slavery are discussed multiple times.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos and videos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. The Black Mozart In Cuba is property of ArtMattan. The screenshot is from YouTube and is property of ArtMattan.

2 comments

    • I know and it’s amazing hearing about this composer. He really was a renaissance man. How many people do you know who are virtuoso musicians, composers, champion fencers, army generals, and teachers at the same time? I’ve even bought an album with his compositions. Le Chavalier de Saint-Georges really needs to be more known.

      Liked by 1 person

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