From its very first frame, as artist George Andrew Morton methodically mixes his paints, Master of Light makes for compelling viewing. The documentary is beautifully shot and edited, but it’s Morton, an eloquent, pensive painter, the film’s subject, that makes it impossible to look away. Like the fine strokes of his brush, Morton is gentle and paitent. A man whose power lies in his raw vulnerability. In under 90 minutes, Master of Light offers up a complex and fascinating self-portrait of a man who, personally and professionally, is very much still a work in progress as he grapples with the aftermath of an 11-year prison sentence for a non-violent drug charge, the external forces that led him there, and the “survivor’s guilt” that came after.
While the film does spend time unpacking Morton’s trauma, the main focus is his artistic brilliance— a classically-trained painter carving out a space for himself in an arena where the very subjects he studied, the ones who first captured his imagination, don’t look anything like him.
Having won the Grand Jury Award for documentary feature at SXSW, Master of Light, now available via HBO. Here in an interview with Awards Daily, Morton and producer Anousha Nzume detail the close colaboration that allowed Morton to tell his story on his terms.
Awards Daily: Anousha, Master of Light is director Rosa Ruth Boesten’s first feature-length documentary. How did you use your role as a producer to support and foster these relationships?
Anousha Nzume: Well, it was very interesting because it was also my first big production. So I was just very happy and proud that two seasoned producers, Roger Ross Williams and Ilia Romans, gave me that trust. But the same goes for Rosa as the director. She gave me trust, and most importantly, George also gave me that trust. This is his story, his life, and they all gave me trust. So I tried to do as best as I could by being supportive and learning lots from Roger and Ilia, who totally took me along. And doing what I believe is my strength— being there not only emotionally and of course, organizationally but also creatively.
AD: George, one thing that really struck me as I was watching is just why you decided to do the documentary and to tell your story. There are so many vulnerable, very personal moments, and I don’t think anybody would’ve blamed you if you said, ‘No, this is too much.’
George Anthony Morton: I just knew that there was much more beneath the surface that needed to be shared with the world. And that my life would maybe serve as a symbol of hope for many. And so, a lot of the decisions that I make today are bigger than me. You know, there are things I don’t want to do. Things that aren’t always comfortable, but if I think about the people who I do it for, it takes me out of myself and into a cause that’s bigger than myself. That kind of helped in my thought process.
[Filming] was extremely vulnerable and open. There were some of the rawest moments that brought tears, that forced us all to walk away. There were moments that were actually filmed that would never [make it into] the film that were even worse than what you may have seen. It was as raw as it gets, honestly. And yeah, I would have to walk away, gather myself, and think about the reason why I’m doing it. You know, all the guys that may call my phone with a life sentence, you know, who knows what I think about that might motivate me on any particular day. Maybe it’s my grandmother who overdosed on crack cocaine, and we just found her dead. You know, her heart bust. All I have to do is think about my life to figure out why, and I don’t get too far from it.
AD: The film takes us inside your therapy sessions. How has the making of Master of Light aided in your personal and artistic growth?
GAM: I remember the point in the creative process where the idea of a therapist was introduced. And if Anousha didn’t come up with that idea, she was very instrumental in making it happen.
I know I didn’t have anything to do with deciding to go to therapy, [laughs] but the conception of that idea was a brilliant one. And honestly, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I depend on it to this very day. Healing through creative practice. I could sum it up with those words. My art is a mirror of what’s happening inside of me. The opportunity to make paintings allows me to reconcile those parts of myself that were left unhealed, those shadowy places; I’m bringing it to the floor and working through it.
AD: How you did you all find the balance between the many themes that Master of Light is exploring— trauma, darkness vs. light, Anthony’s paintings—what did you prioritize in the filmmaking and editing process?
AN: We had so much material. It’s George’s story, and he always knew this was an important story to tell. So for him to also at some point give the trust to an editing team to start editing and work on it, saying like, ‘Okay, I’m, I’m taking some distance here. You just show me what you can whenever you can.’ It was also very instrumental to have that trust, to have that faith from him. Of course, it was a very difficult process because when you’re building a model, you take away all the extra stuff, right? To get to the heart of your piece of art. And it’s the same with editing. And it’s a very, very long process.
GAM: Distillation. It was a distillation of the minutiae. All the fluff got distilled and edited down to the essentials. There is purity in what you’re seeing. In terms of getting that dual mystery, the light vs. dark, in it. I mean, every picture represents it. Every shot, every frame. When you see autumn leaves, that’s for a reason. How shots are framed, the lighting, all of that is meant to explain duality without always having to say it.
In Amsterdam, my partner and I were having a conflict. While I’m talking to people about privilege, people who don’t have the reference point may judge our scenario, and you wouldn’t normally think I’m having that conversation with someone that looks like me. So it turns it on its head when I’m having that conversation about privilege with my partner who’s African-American, but showing how even within the African-American community, there are disparities. This duality is in every scene. Whether we’re using the word or speaking to it directly.
AN: Also, we did not want to make a film where you show suffering just to show suffering. Just like George said, there were things that we could have put in that would’ve maybe been salacious or controversial and edgy. But, it was very important for us, just like in George’s paintings, to always show the beauty and to always show everything with dignity.
GAM: Yeah. In life, as in painting, dark and light, good and bad, often appear together.
AD: George, I loved getting to see the conversations and the close relationship you have with your young nephew and daughter. Has your family had the chance to see Master of Light? How have they reacted to it?
GAM: Absolutely. It was important for all of us to make sure they saw it earlier on and to get their feedback. Mm. From my mother to all my siblings, they were wowed by it.
And honestly, they were happy to see themselves on the screen in that way, and they’ve all grown since then. It was cool for them to see where they were and how far they have come. I’ve continued therapy, and my mother is receiving help, so it’s motivation. They were very much inspired.
AD: I’d like to ask you about your work and your approach to making art. There’s a great moment in Master of Light where you’re painting your mom, and she’s complimenting the piece. And you say something like, ‘Oh, I have a lot more that I need to do.’ I found that fascinating because the painting was absolutely stunning, but to you, it was still a work in progress.
I take it you’re a perfectionist when it comes to your pieces?
AN: He is absolutely a perfectionist. [Laughs].
GAM: Yeah, I kind of gotta get out of a lot of that. I’m a Virgo, so that part of me is very much there, but it was really not finished at that stage. [Laughs].
At the same time, they say, “A work of art is never finished. It’s only abandoned.” So I have to find that sweet spot. I do care about craft. I want to add something meaningful to the canon of Western art. There’s a lot of stuff out there that isn’t as integrity-based and isn’t as craft-based. I have a lot to prove. I want to do a good job. I want it to be as good as it can be.
AD: So, where do you go from here?
GAM: Well, I’m working on a show. I have my teaching studio Atelier South, and I’m also doing the screenplay for my life story.
AD: What about you, Anousha? Do you have a project that you’re ruminating on at the moment?
AN: Yes. I’m working on a project now with a diverse group of incredible young people. I can’t tell you too much about it, But I’m very happy and very excited to get that out there.
AD: George, what do you hope people will take away from seeing your story?
GAM: That you’re not what has happened to you. You are what you choose to become. Ultimately, you’re not a frozen narrative. You can rewrite the script of your life at any time by choice if you have the will, self-determination, and fortitude. That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy, but I’m just speaking to the mental nature of our universe; by taking thought, you can incarnate afresh every day. You choose who you become.
Master of Light is now available via HBO & HBO Max.