SXSW Film Review: Master of Light

SXSW doc winner finds a bright path through the shadows

Master of Light

Master of Light, winner of the Best Documentary Feature at this year’s South by Southwest Film Grand Jury Awards, follows artist George Anthony Morton as he reckons with the weight of his past and its implications on his future.

Growing up, Morton stumbled through the quintessential path that often hinders poor, black men in his position. His parental figures were addicts, his father was absent, his resources were few, and soon, the road from his doorstep to the carceral system quickly became a straight line.

Despite these circumstances that dragged on his feet like shackles, Morton was able to find an outlet in painting while serving a ten year sentence for drug crimes. Painting was his ticket – not only out of poverty and drug addiction, but into an elevated mindset, where he could find clarity in the ways that systemic racism has suffocated his potential throughout his entire life. With these thoughts still heavy in his mind years later, Morton ventures home to Kansas City to paint his family members in an attempt to capture their beauty in a way that is frequently ignored in the art world.

Directed by Rosa Ruth Boesten, with cinematography by Jurgen Lisse, Master of Light leaves one with the same feeling of standing alone in the wings of a darkened museum exhibit. The look of the film carefully mimics the style of painting that Morton employs, modeled after Rembrandt and other Golden Age artists. It is full of quiet faces, biting back emotions, ruminating in silence as their thoughts flash across their faces. Nearly every scene employs natural light, using the camera as a prism to reflect upon it, whether it be sunlight, the strike of a match, or the dance of a firefly through playful fingers. The audience is constantly reminded of the types of things that typically remain in the shadows, and how we may scavenge for beauty among that darkness.

Importantly, Master of Light is not a feel-good film about one black man’s exceptionalism that pretends that racism and poverty are individual issues. It is a blinding exposure of the cyclical nature of neglect, the lasting effects of slavery and racism, and the trauma that persists as a result of being a member of a disenfranchised class. George Anthony Morton is not ‘one of the good ones’ - he’s a lightning rod intent on shaking the earth beneath him.

Master of Light

Documentary Spotlight, World Premiere
Saturday, March 19, 5:45pm, Alamo South Lamar

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