youThe first images in the hbo The documentary Master of Light shows George Anthony Morton cutting white powder. That sly opening knowingly plays into our assumptions that Morton is cooking dope. A few beats later, it is revealed that he is actually just doing painting.
Morton acknowledges the forgery in a Zoom call. “He was preparing drugs in a similar way,” says the ex-con turned celebrity painter with a grin. He also praises the way Dutch filmmaker Rosa Ruth Boesten encapsulates the Kansas City native’s harrowing and inspiring journey with a few evocative strokes.
Morton spent his entire 20s in federal penitentiaries, serving an 11-year sentence on drug charges. While locked up, he found solace and therapy in art, honing his craft and painting striking portraits that are regularly compared to those of Rembrandt. The Dutch painter’s chiaroscuro style, which plays with light and shadow, becomes a visual motif in both Morton’s life and work.
In Master of Light, Morton roams the European art space as a disturbing presence, a black man in his camouflage jacket slipping through museums where no one like him graces the walls. These are moments that pair nicely with Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s video Apeshit, in which they make the Louvre a space to celebrate their black art.
Taking a break from those spaces, Morton takes us into intimate moments at home in Atlanta and Kansas City, as she reconnects with her family members, her five-year-old daughter in tow, painting their portraits as a way to bond. while trying to heal from his hostile upbringing.
Morton, 39, is the oldest of 11 children, born to a mother who had him at 15. He learned the drug game from his mother and grandmother, who sold the house in which he grew up. It was that house on the street. , he says at a moment in the film, where everyone was going to score. He also suspects that his mother is directly responsible for his arrest when he was 19, offering him up to detectives as part of a deal to get off his own charges.
His feelings around that betrayal are conflicted. However, we find him at the beginning of the document calmly trying to post bail for his mother’s most recent arrest. Throughout the documentary, Morton speaks with empathy for the people who, under difficult circumstances, hurt him. He is lucid about the systemic cycle of poverty and trauma that landed him and so many other black men into the justice system. He also strives to bring light to a very dark situation.
There’s that reason, which Morton brings up regularly during our conversation. He’s hunched in a seat next to Master of Light producer Roger Ross Williams. Both speak from Williams’ West Coast office. An Emmy Award and a poster from Williams’ Oscar-nominated documentary Life Animated decorate the background.
Dressed in a multi-patterned flannel hoodie and sporting boxy braids, Morton speaks with a certain mysticism about how his screen journey ended, as if everything were predetermined. “This documentary began honestly with birth on the autumnal equinox,” she says, ascribing meaning to the date when the length of day and night are exactly the same. “My birthday equals darkness and light personified.”
He continues this line of reasoning by remembering seeing a Rembrandt in a museum as a child and feeling inspired. After he was released from prison and began to make a name for himself as an artist, an article in the Sag Harbor Express dubbed Morton “a Rembrandt of the streets.” Around the same time, he visited a psychic in New York City. He says that she told him that Rembrandt’s name keeps popping up among the “voices” he hears, as if he might have been the Dutch painter in a past life.
This all happened before Morton became the first black graduate of the Florence Academy of ArtHe attended the school’s New Jersey campus and toured Europe, where he studied some Rembrandts. During that tour, she connected with Boesten, an Amsterdam-based filmmaker who was captivated by Morton’s story and eager to make it her film debut. She also lived a short distance from the Rembrandt house. (That psychic was working on something Morton calls “the Namaste house” in New York, in case anyone was wondering.)
In her own director’s notes offered to the press, Boesten acknowledges her whiteness and the privileged lens she brings to the story. That, of course, did not faze his collaborators. “He had a particularly sensitive approach,” says Williams, who jumped into the production after seeing Boesten’s footage. He distinguishes Boesten from extractive filmmakers, the type who seek sensational stories about poverty and hardship before moving on to the next story. “She was engaged,” says Williams.
At a time in culture where there’s a push for more black filmmakers to tell black stories, Morton has a more generous but not necessarily laissez-faire attitude about it. He doesn’t think artists should be boxed in or restricted from telling stories from other people’s backgrounds, as long as they have the right scope.
“[Boesten] he approached this with the utmost integrity,” says Morton. He adds that the filmmaker and the subject were intimately attached during a long collaboration that benefited from the synchronicities between them: “She being Dutch and me studying the Dutch masters. She was just out of film school, she met me when I was graduating from art school and she was able to see that magic where our art meets. It was very collaborative and a learning experience for both of us. She would help me with my paintings and I would help her. We learned that way.”
The opening credits describe Master of Light as “a film by Rosa Ruth Boesten and George Anthony Morton,” an acknowledgment that is relatively invisible in a documentary. That gives Morton, as a subject, a certain ownership over the film, as if he, too, were a self-portrait, like the one he’s painting during the credits. Boesten makes the film an extension of Morton’s art, leaning on natural light, searching for deep contrasts, framing subjects according to her portrayal and becoming part of her path to healing.
That marriage between Boesten’s art and Morton’s comes together powerfully in two moments. The first is when Morton tends to his younger brother’s wounds after a knife attack. Soft healing light streams in through the window of the small apartment as Morton attentively and tenderly applies salve to the scars on his brother’s body, which are held shut with staples. And then the brother sits in front of the camera to capture it.
The second moment is when Morton finally gets his mother to sit down for a portrait. Theirs has been an especially difficult relationship. Morton describes the impact she has had on him from a young age: the first harsh, hurtful sights, sounds and sensations in a hostile environment that left him unable to trust anyone. He says that now he projects that mistrust onto others. That’s something he hasn’t fully recovered from yet. “She still hasn’t knowing where I live I have this safety net around me,” he says.
However, she sits reserved for him and Morton paints a beautiful, dignified and heartfelt portrait of her mother, one that testifies to her grief but also echoes something she said earlier in the film. She talks about being 15 and having Morton, her first child, because she wanted someone to love her. it’s devastating
“All I wanted was love,” Morton says, when I bring up that moment, sounding a little guarded about how much he wants to say or feel about his mother’s words.
“The more I can work to heal that relationship and find reconciliation with it, the more it impacts my relationship with others and my relationship with myself and my own internal world,” he continues. “The more we can heal that place, it makes me better when I go out into the world.”