In HBO’s ‘Master Of Light,’ grappling with control of the art world

As an Oscar-winning director, Roger Ross Williams is used to people asking him to take a look at a movie they’ve been working on. He’s a good player and he often agrees, without always expecting anything.

When Rosa Ruth Boesten approached Williams at an event in Amsterdam, he politely agreed to watch a teaser for her movie, a documentary called Master of Light. What he saw blew him away. “I watched the teaser, and it was just the most amazing story,” he says. “It was beautifully shot and powerful, and I had never seen anything like it.”

The Dutch director had filmed the life of classical painter George Anthony Morton. A gifted artist and follower of Dutch masters like Rembrandt, Morton was trying to break into the art world after a 10-year stint in prison for drug trafficking.

Williams has been sold. He called Boesten, they went to lunch, and he asked to produce the film – a big deal for a rookie director. “She started crying,” he recalls. “She couldn’t believe it after struggling for so long to get funding. I brought her to New York, and we had meetings and presented the film at festivals.

The documentary, which debuted on HBO Wednesday and HBO Max last week, hasn’t just entered festivals, it’s cleaned them up. Master of Light received the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW
XSW
, Best Documentary Feature at the San Francisco International Film Festival and Best First Feature at the Sheffield DocFest in the UK. The vulnerability displayed in the film resonated with viewers, something Morton is proud of.

“We didn’t want it to be unrealistic or fake. It shows the honesty of my daily struggles, ultimately wanting to inspire this young George,” the artist says.

Boesten captured Morton’s push to establish himself professionally in the art as well as mend relationships with his family. Part of this healing process was painting his family members in the style of the old Dutch masters. Morton says he sought to show people watching the film a path they could take if they had similar experiences. “I wanted to prevent people from walking into some of the traps I walked into,” he says.

Morton notes that growing up he always felt drawn to art and had a natural talent for painting. But it took him years to realize it was a viable career path. While in a juvenile detention center, he met a math teacher who helped him get his GED.

“She promised that once I got out, she would find me and take me to the museum. And she took me to see a Rembrandt for the first time when I was 16. I wasn’t able to hold on to fine art painting as a professional at the time, but it sparked something in me that would eventually blossom later,” Morton says. “And when I was incarcerated, I saw that as an opportunity that was just brilliantly disguised in that setback.”

Morton has an incredible ability to do that: see setbacks as opportunities. As a black man pursuing a career in a white-dominated industry, he was certainly likely to be discouraged by racism and the doors that remained closed to him. Instead, he prefers to think his efforts will make it easier for the next person of color or incarcerated.

“Access control is only part of our human story. You know, we’re kind of coming out of an old world, maybe old opinions, and I’m so grateful to help us through some of that,” he says. “What I see is that good and bad things often appear together. And so I try not to speak in absolute terms of one thing, you know, but what I hope to ultimately change are those stereotypes that can result from a lack of representation.

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