SXSW 2022: Darkness Beckons in MASTER OF LIGHT

The documentary on artist George Anthony Morton is a compelling story of the power of family.

Morton’s daughter.

George Anthony Morton has straddled two worlds his whole life: Parent and child. Incarcerated and free. Former drug dealer and classically trained painter. As an adult in his hometown of Kansas City, he tries to fit back into his old life, to joke with his siblings and bond with his nephew, without being sucked back into a vortex of manipulation and guilt. It’s not just that his family has trouble trusting each other or that Morton’s seen a lifetime of hardship in his 30s because of who he is, where he comes from, and how the state treats Black Americans; his girlfriend, Ashley, frequently chimes in to say that she understands the challenges of multigenerational poverty and drug use, but Morton insists that she that she is missing a key element of his story. Morton’s kryptonite isn’t any drug, but the draw of his mother’s love, as conditional as it is.

Master of Light is ostensibly a portrait of Morton, a bio-documentary with an uplifting story about how a man turned his life around after eleven years in prison. Director Rosa Ruth Boesten accomplishes both, reminding us that the best way for a film to make a larger statement about a social issue is by narrowing in on a specific character’s journey. But the story of Morton and his mother becomes the more interesting one, capturing the attention of not only the viewer but also Morton’s therapist, siblings, colleagues, daughter, and partner. Morton’s capacity for forgiveness — and his vulnerability to his mother’s whims — is as large as his artistic talent.

When he was twenty years old, Morton was arrested for a drug deal and sentenced to over eleven years in federal prison; all his siblings have been to jail, we learn, but he’s the only one who’s gone to prison. He knew that his mother, who had him at fifteen after growing up with a mother who struggled with substance use issues, had been involved in his arrest, taking a deal with police to reduce her own sentence in exchange for information. Sixteen years later, his life as a painter is overshadowed by the revelation that his mother played a more active role, bringing the informant to their home and directly setting up her child for incarceration. He is heartbroken and dumbstruck, turning in turmoil to the therapist whose work may be unraveled by a twist that feels both cruel and unsurprising in the context of the film. Morton had threatened, in a moment of earlier frustration, to leave a portrait of his mother unfinished; by the time we learn the truth about their past, the portrait feels inconsequential.

Morton copies a Rembrandt work.

Morton’s art is not a secondary part of his life, but does feel somewhat shafted in Master of Light. We see how his work evolved from painting in prison recreation rooms to attending the Florence Academy of Art. He’s fond of the Dutch old masters, meticulously copying Rembrandt’s works in museums like a studio apprentice; he even travels to Amsterdam and sits in Rembrandt’s chair, saying that he feels like the virtuoso is watching over his shoulder. “I feel as if darkness is my friend,” Morton says of both the role that chiaroscuro plays in his work — an effect mimicked by cinematographer Jurgen Lisse throughout the film — and the allure of the depressive episodes that threaten to reel him back in. Though Morton’s achievements as an artist are noteworthy and the questions he asks about the depiction of Black subjects in painting (including the fact that he was discouraged from painting Black features and skin tones in his studies) are relevant and prescient in today’s art world, Master of Light is not sure how best to explore them. The film is instead caught in the vortex of the Morton family’s multifaceted drama, a story that will induce shock and anger but also inspire resiliency. For this, the documentary, however scattered, is worth the investment.

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