“Darkness is my friend.” Those sober words by Black classical painter George Anthony Morton, the introspective subject of Rosa Ruth Boesten’s harrowing and spellbinding documentary “Master of Light” — which won the Grand Jury Award for documentary feature at SXSW — refracts the film’s title from an aesthetic ethos to a way of life. It paints Morton’s present mental health struggles — the obvious and unconscious reverberations of his socio-economic environment on his past and current life — and the seemingly inescapable cycles that still crush his family.
Boesten, however, doesn’t reduce Morton’s painful history to degradation. Because you don’t measure light through its absence; you find it in the human eye. And Black folks are filled with light. Even when the world, from conception to death, distorts Black people’s worth — even during structural racism and anti-blackness — or against the ceaseless undertow of mental trauma, Black people still project radiance. Morton maps a similar radiance onto his portraits. And, in his return home to Kansas City, Missouri, to mend a broken relationship with his mother, he finds light amidst the darkness in the flickering glow of his kin’s eyes.
The soft-spoken Morton knows his talent, and knows his luck. He served a 10-year stint in federal prison for selling drugs, where he ultimately studied Rembrandt while trading his own paintings in return for transfers to less dangerous cellblocks. He later painted a gym owner, leading to more assignments. Then he studied at the Florence Academy of Art, learning in the Classical-Realist tradition through the lens of Renaissance painters. With his dedicated partner Ashley and his observant young daughter, he now calls Atlanta home. Despite his success, however, Morton can’t shake the portraits of his life that are cracked and peeling. His mother is in and out of jail. His brother was recently stabbed (TW: a gruesome survey of his wounds finds the camera observing the multiple staples used as treatment).
And yet, in Boesten’s lyrical vérité style, their stories and obstacles carry the same weight as Morton’s. Because “Master of Light” isn’t concerned with framing the painter as an Exceptional Negro, a knee-jerk gaze that would probably easily bleed into a staid hagiographic talking heads doc. It’s instead interested in the ways Morton isn’t an exception, primarily, by observing his therapy sessions. Few phrases carry as much reductiveness in describing Black life than “we rarely see,” but we truly rarely see Black folks, onscreen, participating in therapy to uncover the sources of the invisible aches that still hurt. Here Morton reflexively considers his quick-trigger anger, his survivor’s guilt, and the trauma begotten by his childhood. Though he left Kansas City long ago, did he ever really leave? And can he ever hope to escape? The processing will take time and effort, a fact not lost on Morton. But he further discovers how healing can come through holding on, particularly using his art to capture his family.
The artist possesses a deep fascination with duality. His mother can be a source of frustration, as when she asks for bond money or when he discovers she maybe gave him up for a lighter jail sentence. She can also be a wellspring of joy, seen in the lighthearted reminiscing they share. In a potent shot, when she sits for her portrait, a fractured mirror doubles her visage. Conversely, the very essence of painting allows the artist to fashion a fixed, unchanging version of the subject. The best artists, in fact, inscribe several layers of interiority behind each shade. In his mother’s portrait, the artist captures her resoluteness and her dignity. But is this iteration of his mother how Morton sees her? Or a symbol for their healing relationship?
While in Atlanta, Morton takes his 11-year old nephew under his wing in a bid to save him from venturing down a dangerous path. His nephew contemplates the tragic lineage of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, and so forth, and likewise sits for a portrait in his hoodie. The result is an uncanny and eerie double of Martin backgrounded by an amber-colored glow. From his mother and nephew’s portraits, you get the sense their importance doesn’t solely come from their healing quality. They reflect the essence of how the world, how art, should see them.
“Master of Light” is a gentle and graceful film defined by the capriciousness of sight. Some scenes by cinematographer Jurgen Lisse wrap the subject in a chiaroscuro lighting, wherein their visibility is defined by shadows. Others are bathed in near blinding, overexposed sunlight. Each extreme only adds rather than subtracts melancholy and personhood.
Despite its 84-minute length, Boesten and editor Ephraim Kirkwood are never in a rush. Instead, they keep a meditative pace. They further trust their audience by never employing title cards to introduce individuals, instead relying on viewers to be fully engaged. Long scenes take place in Morton’s car as he drives around his neighborhood, past the empty lots and graffiti-stained theater, with his cruising as a visual totem of his internal search for peace. An intermittent asynchronous narration stitches juxtaposing moods and tones together, giving his acute reflections a poetic and pensive quality. And his young daughter is never out of sight. She constantly observes both the highs and lows of her father and his family, without judgment, but still with a subliminal recognition of what’s in front of her.
The film considers the shifting definitions of success, opportunity, and responsibility. What real chance do you have when the deck is so often stacked against you? In a telling conversation between Morton and his partner, Ashley, she wonders aloud why Morton so often excuses his mother’s continued mistakes. She’s grown; doesn’t she carry the blame for not escaping her cycle? At a later cookout, gunshots ring out with the spatter of fireworks. At another time, Morton and sister brazenly talk about how their mother showed them how to take drugs. In another place, Morton’s mother resigns herself to find a service job for some quick cash. When Morton opines that she should wait, she explains how she can’t: She has bills. And the cycle begins again.
Morton knows a painting alone can’t break decades of systematic oppression, but it can help to understand and process them. In doing so, “Master of Light” becomes not only a salute to Morton’s journey but a keen acknowledgment of the sharp twists and wrong turns that can make the road back so much harder to see.