Rafael Padilla (Omar Sy) was among the world’s first (and certainly first in France) famous black performing artists. He rose to prominence as the clown Chocolat, and enjoyed spectacular success for his part in the then novel double act with white clown Foottit (James Theirée) – although perhaps ‘enjoyed’ is somewhat overstating the case.

When we’re introduced to Padilla at the end of the 19th century, he’s already in a struggling rural circus, playing the role of Kanaga, and presented as a savage, exotic wonder of the African continent. Demeaning, but a paying gig for a performer with limited training and options at the time. At least he’s doing better than Foottit, who is failing auditions, his act being written off as stale. But the eureka moment quickly arrives, and the duo soon realises their value when they are called up to a major theatre in Paris.

Padilla’s experience of fame was brutally fickle, a bitterly sharp double-edged sword for the Afro-Cuban child of slaves. The fact that parallels can be drawn between his situation a century ago and today is as powerful as it is shameful, and its one of the film’s great strengths - it’s a just shame that the (multi-credited) screenplay isn’t smooth enough to convey the subtlety and delicacy it deserves; too often, good work elsewhere is undone by thudding exposition and tin-eared dialogue.

There’s really no better actor working today to portray Padilla than the towering Sy (even though, judging by the actual footage of the clown used in the film, he was not a big man), whose imposing physicality can be disguised through any combination of charm and chops, or revealed it in moments of ferocious self-defence. He doesn’t miss a beat, and has an excellent match in Thierrée as the strange, never completely knowable Foottit, and watching the white clown quietly navigate his own problems and oppressions is another of MONSIEUR CHOCOLAT’s many pleasures.

MONSIEUR CHOCOLAT is released June 29 in Australia and NZ.