EXCLUSIVE: HBO Documentary Films has released a trailer for Master of Light, the award-winning film about artist George Anthony Morton, who developed his exceptional gift for portraiture while serving time in federal prison.
The film directed by Rosa Ruth Boesten premieres on HBO on Wednesday, November 16 and will stream on HBO Max.
“[Morton] was the first of 11 children born to a 15-year-old mother,” according to a bio on the artist’s website. “His mother was incarcerated many times during his childhood, so George and his siblings often endured chaos as they were left to struggle on their own through the grinding reality of systemic poverty, incarceration and drug addiction in their family and community. Despite it all, George had a gift that was recognized by many along the way: he could draw. Making images was his escape.”
At 19 he was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison on drug charges. Behind bars, he honed his artistic talent. When he was released, after spending all of his 20s in prison, he pursued art studies and was among a handful of students accepted into the prestigious New York branch of the Florence Academy of Art. He later studied at the academy in Italy where he won competitive awards for Best Figure Drawing in 2015 and Best Portrait Drawing in 2016. In 2017 the New York Times wrote a profile about him, which is around the time Boesten, a Dutch filmmaker, first heard about Morton.
“I learned about George through a mutual friend who met George in New York and told me about his story,” Boesten told Deadline at SXSW, where her film premiered. “He just had a New York Times article that came out and I read about the story and was just blown away by his artwork. And that’s when I reached out, and that’s where it started for me.”
Master of Light won the Grand Jury Award for Documentary Feature at SXSW, and went on to claim the cinematography prize at the Atlanta Film Festival and the award for Best First Feature at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival in the U.K. On Friday, November 11, the film will make its New York debut at DOC NYC.
“Incarcerated for 10 years for dealing drugs, self-taught classical painter George Anthony Morton returns to his hometown of Kansas City [Mo.] to confront his damaged relationship with his mother, who has serious legal problems of her own,” the DOC NYC program explains. “As George explores African influences on realism and the style of the Dutch Old Masters, filmmaker Rosa Ruth Boesten captures the vulnerabilities and unexpected challenges in his quest to establish himself as a professional artist and a man in the new season of his life.”
In the trailer, Morton alludes to his fraught relationship with his mom. He says, “Momma set me up to go to prison instead of her.” His mother comments, “All I wanted was somebody to love me… What have I done that’s so bad that you can’t forgive?”
Master of Light is ultimately a story of reconciliation and healing. Morton repeats to himself, “I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become.”
Executive producers of the film are Jody Allen, Rocky Collins, Jannat Gargi, Ruth Johnson and Geoff Martz. The film is produced by Roger Ross Williams, Anousha Nzume, and Ilja Roomans (Williams, Nzume, along with Boesten, editor Ephraim Kirkwood, composer Gary Gunn and EP Geoff Martz will take part in a Q&A following the DOC NYC screening).
Williams, the Oscar-winning director of Music by Prudence, came on board as producer after Boesten asked him to watch a teaser of her footage.
“I was like, ‘What? Oh my God, this guy is so incredibly talented. And this filmmaker is so incredibly talented,’ and it was so beautiful,” Williams recalls. “I remember I called my husband and I said, ‘You’ve got to see something. I just discovered an incredible talent and a powerful story. I’ve got to make this film.’”
Williams calls the documentary an underdog story about “the power of art to heal and transform you out of your predicament.”
An important theme to the film is the way Morton paints his subjects, rendering African American people with a dignity not often seen in art of the past two or three centuries. During his studies and travels around the world, the artist discovered there was an earlier period in history, before the systematic dehumanizing of Black people began with the Transatlantic slave trade, when renowned artists painted People of Color in an ennobling manner.
“The more I went into classical art and looking at the images we would see these depictions of Black people in a more elevated and dignified way, and it would just be kind of hidden,” Morton told Deadline. “That was very, very eye-opening for me because I hadn’t been shown anything like that in my textbooks at school, in the world museums. It’s just not put out front and we had to travel far and wide and ask museums to pull pictures out of storage. It was quite a journey.”
Back in March, at SXSW, he was still adjusting to the idea that he had become the subject of a documentary.
“It’s been quite overwhelming, because the film is so immersive in my own healing journey,” he said. “It was a beautiful struggle, I would say, very beautiful struggle. But I’m honored for the opportunity. It’s really humbling.”
Watch the trailer above.