Rosa Ruth Boesten’s Compassionate Doc Reignites The Power of Artistic Expression

Jan 16, 2023

It’s hard to describe what “Master of Light” does so well with images. Director Rosa Ruth Boesten’s portrayal of a struggling artist works best when its subjects say very little. The weight of what was said hangs in the air while we watch their faces in contrasting light and shadow. In a sea of streaming documentaries, often a slick array of talking heads focused on grim true crime discussion, this tale of art and redemption is invigorating, albeit not without a sense of fragility.
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At first, the film opens deceptively with close, tight inserts of paint mixed on a palette. The deceit stems from how the activity is captured, looking and sounding like cocaine being cooked up. Cocaine is the drug that classically trained painter George Anthony Morton is jailed for. Locked away for a decade in federal prison. Morton focuses on his art during his jail time. With the intent to paint those close to him now that he’s released. The conflict arises when faced with creating a portrait of his mother, the woman who had a hand in his incarceration. “Master Of Light” contends with Morton’s continuous exploration into his rehabilitation and how his art may provide a reconnection with his mother and comfort for his soul.
The vulnerability exhibited within “Master Of Light” is what truly sets it apart from many documentaries of its arch. The simple exchanges seen between Morton and his therapist stand out. It feels so unexpected. A young African American man partaking in therapy still feels taboo. He has no issue expressing his feelings, from the anger of his past to his desire to use his craft to find solace. “He might be as f**ked up as me,” he quips. It’s a telling line that seems to belay how progressive these scenes are. There are possibly more scenes of Michael Myers in therapy in cinema than of black ex-inmates.
Yet “Master Of Light” is never showy with what it does—handling even the most animated moments with deft grace. Its delicate, matter-of-fact storytelling is, at times, disarming. It would be easy to prepare oneself for a cloying ‘Hallmark’ moment of false triumph. Boesten’s film never makes that sort of stumble. Certain moments within the film highlight an amount of staginess at points. The subjectivity becomes more pronounced. One can sense the setting up of a conflict which sometimes dilutes some of the potency within the narrative.
Yet it’s difficult not to become absorbed into Morton’s story. A child is initially set up to linger in a broken system for marginalized people. Despite his artistic talent being encouraged by his school, he is quickly coaxed into selling drugs by his mother as means to survive. Before we even meet her in the film, she must be bailed out of prison.  In one contentious moment, Morton’s mother expresses how she’s considering working in fast food just to pay the bills—underlining the ease with which lack of true opportunity in the system can change a person whole. Morton’s passion for art gives him a chance to escape. A provocative conversation with his family late on quietly suggests that his prison time gave him the means to break the generational imprisonment occurring with his fellow kin.
Whichever side of the coin a person may feel in such a conversation, Morton’s motivation by his passion is key.  Throughout “Master Of Light,” Morton’s quest for affirmation is shown with vibrancy, detail, and care. Simple moments like Morton going fishing with his family or talking his nephew through the protests raised by George Floyd’s murder sometimes feel alien. Simply because lesser films have flown by such sensitivity, Boesten portrays this in Morton’s conversations about the Dutch Masters he looks up to. The Eurocentric sensibilities of art so often reflected in everything we watch are chopped, then screwed. Jurgen Lisse‘s cinematography frames the black subjects of the film next to windows and mirrors. The result creates beautiful Chiaroscuro compositions. Contrasting light and dark, capturing both their vulnerability and antagonism, the film images mimic Morton’s paintings, revealing moments of nobility and compassion. Within these arresting scenes, we realize that such moments are all so rare.
“Master Of Light” carefully handles its heavy subject matter. Affirming the power of art, rehabilitation, and compassion at a time when they seem under heavy attack. Morton’s paintings are beautifully stirring pieces. Gracefully composed with a true sense of the artist’s history behind them. Rosa Ruth Boesten’s film is an extension of this. A fitting and compassionate feature that reignites fierce feelings about the power of artistic expression. [B+]

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