tHe’s the first pictures in HBO The Master of Light documentary features George Anthony Morton cutting white powder. This sly opening intentionally plays on our assumptions that Morton is cooking up steroids. A few beats later, it is revealed that he is actually just making paint.
Morton admits to fraud on the Zoom call. “I used to get drugs in a similar way,” says the ex-con-turned-famous painter with an ear-to-ear grin. He also praises the way Dutch filmmaker Rosa Ruth Boesten sums up the harrowing and inspiring journey of the Kansas City native with some suggestive strokes.
Morton spent his entire twenties in federal prisons, serving an 11-year sentence for the drug charge. While confined, he found comfort and therapy in art, honing his craft and painting stunning portraits that are regularly compared to those painted by 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 destructive presence, a black man in his camouflage jacket who zips through museums where no one like him graces the walls. These are moments that pair so nicely with Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s Apeshit video, they make the Louvre a space to celebrate their black artistry.
Taking a break from those spaces, Morton takes us to intimate moments at home in Atlanta and Kansas City, as he reconnects with his family members, his five-year-old daughter in tow, and paints their portraits as a means of bonding as he tries to heal from his hostile upbringing.
Morton, 39, is the eldest of 11 siblings, born to a mother who gave birth to him at the age of 15. He learned the drug game from his mother and grandmother, who sold the house he grew up in. It was that house down the street, he says at one point in the movie, where everyone went to register. He also suspects his mother is directly responsible for his arrest when he was 19, and offers him to investigators as part of a deal to clear her own charges.
His feelings about that betrayal are mixed. However, early in the doc we find him quietly trying to post bail for his mother’s latest arrest. Throughout the documentary, Morton speaks sympathetically to the people who – under difficult circumstances – have wronged him. He is clear about the systemic cycle of poverty and trauma that has drawn him and many other black men into the justice system. It also makes an effort to bring light into a very dark situation.
There’s this motive that Morton brings up regularly throughout our conversation. He staggered into a seat sitting next to Master of Light producer Roger Ross Williams. Both are speaking from Williams’ West Coast office. An Emmy Award and poster of Williams’ Academy Award-nominated documents adorn the background.
Dressed in a hoodie with multiple flannel styles and sporting box braids, Morton speaks with some ambiguity about how his on-screen journey ends, as if everything was pre-ordained. “This documentary honestly began with his birth on the autumnal equinox,” he says, attributing meaning to the date when day and night are exactly equal in length. “My birthday is equal in darkness and light.”
He continues this reasoning by recalling seeing Rembrandt in a museum as a child and being inspired. After he got out of prison and began to make a name for himself as an artist, an article in the Sag Harbor Express called Morton “the Rembrandt of the streets.” Around the same time, he visited a psychiatrist in New York City. He says she tells him that Rembrandt’s name constantly pops up among the “voices” she hears, as if he could have been the Dutch painter in a past life.
All of this happened before Morton became the first black graduate of the Florence Academy art, attended the school’s New Jersey campus, and went on a European tour, studying a few Rembrandts. During that tour, he came into contact with Boesten, a film director from Amsterdam who was impressed by Morton’s story and was keen to make it her debut. She happens to live within walking distance of Rembrandt’s house. (That spiritualist has been working on something Morton calls a “Namaste House” in New York, in case anyone was wondering.)
In the director’s notes provided to the press, Boesten acknowledges her whiteness and the distinct lens she brings to the story. This, of course, did not bother her collaborators. “She had a particularly sensitive approach,” says Williams, who jumped into the production after seeing Boesten’s footage. It sets Boesten apart from the extractive filmmakers, who search for thrilling stories of poverty and suffering before moving on to their next story. “She was obliging,” says Williams.
At a time in the culture where there is a push for more black filmmakers telling black stories, Morton has a more generous but not necessarily laissez-faire attitude about it. He doesn’t think artists should be confined or banned from telling stories from other people’s backgrounds, as long as they come with the right field.
“[Boesten] We handled this with the utmost integrity,” Morton says. He adds that director and subject joined at the hip during a long collaboration that benefited from their synchronicity: “Being Dutch and I studying Dutch masters. She was a recent graduate of film school, and she met me when I was graduating art school and being able to see this magic where our art meets. It was very collaborative and a professional training for both of us. She would help me with my paintings, and I would help her in turn. We learned that way.”
The opening credits describe Master of Light as “a film by Rosa Ruth Posten and George Anthony Morton,” an acknowledgment that is relatively unseen in a documentary. This gives Morton, as subject, some ownership of the film, as if it were also a self-portrait, like the one he paints during the credits. Boesten makes the film an extension of Morton’s art, drawing on natural light, searching for deep contrasts, framing subjects according to his own image and becoming part of his path to healing.
This marriage of Boesten and Morton’s art comes together powerfully in two moments. The first is when Morton tends to his younger brother’s wounds after a knife attack. A soft, healing light comes in from the window into the small apartment where Morton is lovingly applying the ointment to the scars on his brother’s body, which are closed by pins. Then the brother sits down for the camera to take him inside.
The second moment is when Morton finally gets his mom to sit for a photo. Their relationship was particularly difficult. Morton describes the effect it had on him from an early age: the harsh, devastating first sights, sounds, and sensations in a hostile environment made him unable to trust anyone. He says he is now projecting distrust onto others. This is something he has yet to recover from. “It still doesn’t I know where I live. “I have this protection net around me,” he says.
Despite this, she sits reticent for him and Morton paints a beautiful, dignified, and honest portrait of his mother, an image that testifies to her pain but also mirrors what she said earlier in the film. She talks about being fifteen, and having her first child, Morton, because she wanted someone to love her. It’s devastating.
“All I wanted was love,” said Morton, speaking of that moment, sounding somewhat reticent about how much he wanted to say or feel in connection with his mother’s words.
He continues, “The more I can work on healing that relationship and finding reconciliation with it, the more it affects my relationship with others, my relationship with myself, and my inner world.” “The more we can heal this place, the better it makes me when I go out into the world.”