After garnering praise for his performance several years ago in the touching French film, The Intouchables, two-time Black Reel Award nominee, Omar Sy takes on the life of the noted French entertainer in the upcoming historical drama, Chocolat.
French-Moroccan actor/director Roschdy Zem’s biopic centers on the history of the clown “Chocolat,” Rafael Padilla, the first black circus artist in France, who had great success in the late 19th century. Padilla was a former Cuban-born slave-turned-performer who became a circus entertainer in France during the late 1800s.
Padilla, nicknamed “Chocolat,” was born in Cuba in 1868 and was sold into slavery at the age of 9, to a Portuguese merchant. After escaping slavery, he traveled to Paris and launched a career in the circus, captivating the French with his talents as a singer and dancer, and as a clown, working under the stage name “Chocolat,” a term that, because of the roles he played, became slang for “ridiculed” or “abused.”
When his parents died, the woman charged with looking after him sent him to Europe, where Rafael hoped to find his freedom. He did odd jobs in Spain and eventually arrived in Paris in 1887, at the age of 18, where he was discovered by Footit, a British clown who needed a partner.
Padilla then joined the circus, where he was habitually cast in denigrating roles, such as King of the Jungle, King of the Monkeys, slave to Cleopatra, and others. And it was there that he began to find himself, struggling with the distorted public image that made him a star, reconciling that with the human being that he was but few actually knew.
Padilla died in Bordeaux on November 4, 1917.
Padilla’s story parallels the career of Lincoln Perry, also known as “Stepin Fetchit.” Fetchit remains one of the most controversial movie actors in American history. While he was undoubtedly one of the most talented physical comedians ever to do his shtick on the Big Screen, achieving the rare status of being a character actor/supporting player who actually achieved superstar status in the 1930s (becoming a millionaire to boot), his characterization as a lazy, slow-witted, jive-talkin’ “coon” offended African-Americans at the time he was a major attraction in motion pictures (primarily the 1930s) and still offends African-Americans in the 21st century, more than 50 years after he had faded from the screen. Yet some African-Americans claim him as the first black superstar, and thus a trailblazer for others of his “race.”
Sy made history when he became the first black actor to win the César Award for Best Actor (the French equivalent of the Oscars) in 2012, for his work in The Intouchables. He has raised his profile with American audiences in recent films, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Jurassic World.
Chocolat has been slated for a February release date in France but the film has not secured domestic distribution.
Check out the trailer for the upcoming film, as well as early footage of the duo he formed with Footit, filmed by the Lumière Brothers, below: