‘Master of Light’: Film Review | SXSW 2022

Winner of the fest’s top non-fiction prize, Rosa Ruth Boesten’s debut doc introduces George Anthony Morton, a fine artist whose career was born during a decade in prison.

Not many stories of interrupting generational poverty involve Rembrandt. But in Master of Light, Rosa Ruth Boesten introduces us to George Anthony Morton, who developed his Classical painting skills during a decade in federal prison, then built a career he hopes will help family members see a life for themselves beyond the cycle of poverty, crime and jail.

Much is left unsaid in the beautifully shot doc, which will leave inquisitive viewers wanting many more specifics on both the family front and the artistic one. But sacrificing such detail allows Boesten to develop a more intimate emotional portrait of Morton, a subject whose thoughtful self-invention is affecting practically from the first scene.

Master of Light

The Bottom Line

More intimate and emotional than “inspirational.”

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)

Director: Rosa Ruth Boesten

1 hour 24 minutes

Art-savvy viewers who raise an eyebrow at the film’s superlative title should put skepticism aside. The film itself doesn’t argue that this painter you’ve never heard of deserves a spot in the art-history pantheon, and in fact, we never even hear from a curator, critic or gallerist championing his work. Boesten doesn’t even bother to tell us if he’s able to make a living by painting, though it seems a very safe assumption. Instead, the beauty of that work and the seriousness with which he approaches it speak for themselves, and have taken him places his family could never have predicted.

Born to a 15 year-old girl whose mother was so continuously high she didn’t even realize her daughter was pregnant, Morton lived in a “neighborhood drug house” in Kansas City and was raised to make his living in that business. No surprise that he was busted and spent all of his twenties in federal prison. Somehow — Boesten doesn’t expect us to care how he came to art — he started making paintings in prison that were good enough they gave him leverage: Morton recalls using them, for instance, to justify a transfer to a less dangerous facility. After his release, he found his way to an art school in New York and further opportunities to study the history of painting.

Again, the movie declines to say how this happened, and how he won some perks we witness, like a chance to have Rembrandt’s The Night Watch to himself while other visitors to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum must jostle with tourists for a glimpse. However things happened, Morton now finds himself living in Atlanta with a partner, Ashley, whose background is entirely different from his own. He’s raising a daughter, Nuri, whose distance from Morton’s family is revealed when she asks, early on, “Daddy, do you have a mother?”

He does, and dealing with her apparently presents constant emotional challenges. It’s unclear whether Morton has been in touch with his mother and siblings since his release, or if the trips we see to Kansas City were arranged for the sake of the film. Whatever the case, their conversations are fraught, with some family members strongly hinting at financial and practical needs while giving no assurance they’re done with the drug life. Boesten pays special attention to Morton’s nephew Treshon, an at-risk 11 year-old who seems very open to the wisdom his uncle shares.

The film balances these interactions against Morton’s private efforts to assure his own well-being. We watch several sessions with his therapist, talking through his “pretty unique kind of trauma,” then see him try to convince Ashley that he’s not wrong to keep helping the mother who placed him in harm’s way.

In fact, she may have done much worse: Mid-film, we learn she may have gotten herself out of trouble by giving authorities the information that put him in prison. Boesten’s failure to follow up on this is the doc’s most unforgivable omission. Instead, she offers extra scenes of Morton painting a portrait of his mom, giving her a dignity and depth most strangers probably don’t see. As Morton continues to seek ways to apply his classical training to the depiction of Black subjects, one suspects his biography will creep more and more onto the canvas, resulting in something more impressive than a gorgeous imitation of Rembrandt van Rijn’s brushwork.

Full credits

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)
Production companies: Vulcan Productions, One Story Up Productions
Director: Rosa Ruth Boesten
Producers: Roger Ross Williams, Anousha Nzume, Ilja Roomans
Executive Producers: Jody Allen, Ruth Johnston, Rocky Collins, Jannat Gargi, Geoff Martz
Director of photography: Jurgen Lisse
Editor: Ephraim Kirkwood
Composer: Gary Gunn
Sales: UTA

1 hour 24 minutes