Master of Light, Ayoungman, Stay Awake, Riotsville, USA: Lives and struggles of the oppressed

This is the fourth in a series of articles on films from the San Francisco International Film Festival (April 21-May 1) that were made available to the WSWS online. The first part was posted April 26, the second May 4 and the third May 10.

Master of Light

Directed by Dutch filmmaker Rosa Ruth Boesten, with cinematography by Jürgen Lisse, the documentary Master of Light chronicles the remarkable story of George Anthony Morton, an immensely gifted painter who grew up in extreme poverty in Kansas City, Missouri. Untutored, he was accepted and studied at the New York Metro branch of the prestigious Florence Academy of Art. There, he underwent rigorous training in the Classical-Realist tradition of Renaissance painters. “Beauty can emanate from darkness as well as light,” Morton asserts in the course of the film.

He was born in September 1983. The first of 11 children, his mother was 15-years-old when she had George and was incarcerated various times during his childhood. At the age of 19, Morton was sent to a federal penitentiary, where he ended up serving 11 years as a non-violent offender. He was recognized as a promising painter, and his art helped him survive the whole decade of his 20s behind bars. Morton became the first African American to graduate from any campus of the Florence Academy of Art, where he won the competitive awards for Best Figure Drawing, 2015, and Best Portrait Drawing, 2016. He is the founder of Atelier South, Atlanta, Georgia’s first art workshop/studio, modeled upon six centuries of classicism.

Master of Light

In the documentary, we see Morton return to his hometown of Kansas City to face his family—in other words, according to the producers, a mother who “may or may not have set George up for a 12-year federal sentence in exchange for a lighter sentence for herself; his brother who was recently stabbed; his 11-year-old nephew, who is in imminent danger of going down that same path.” Recalling many difficult memories, Morton paints portraits of family members that shimmer with the inner life of their subjects.

“The world is just set up for people to lose,” argues Morton. Referring to his mother, he observes that “the system failed her. My mother had me at 15. We pretty much grew up together. She was a hustler.”

In a poignant sequence, George’s mother asks if her portrait is finished: “Hell no! I have to make it look like you’re going to start talking.” And that he is capable of doing! 

Unhappily, if almost inevitably, the filmmakers cede too much to racial politics. They attribute George’s difficulties and those of his family members solely to “systemic racism.” Racism is undoubtedly a factor in the family’s condition, but poverty plagues nearly one in six residents in Kansas City, with African Americans accounting (disproportionately) for 25 percent of the poverty-stricken.

How many painters have emerged from the white or immigrant working class population in Kansas City? 

The comments of director Boesten along these lines are as typical as they are banal. She asserts in the film’s production notes: “Being a white filmmaker from Europe, making a film about a subject from a very different background came with tremendous responsibilities.” Artists have been creating works about people from “very different backgrounds” for a couple of thousand years. It comes with the territory, or ought to.

Although Morton too has been influenced, again almost unavoidably, by the current racialist narrative, more profoundly, he attributes the nurturing of his incredible artistry to the tradition of naturalism “that existed before Rembrandt and all my favorite Old Masters … They kept the torch burning for people like me to step up and take my rightful place in it.”


In March 2019, 24-year-old Kristian Ayoungman, from the Siksika First Nation, was fatally shot in a racially motivated murder near Strathmore, Alberta. Holly Fortier and Larry Day’s short but candid documentary, Ayoungman, centers on the reaction of the Siksika Nation and the townspeople of Strathmore to the brutal episode.

Melody Ayoungman, Kristian’s impressive mother, speaks lovingly about her son: “My boy was very well known all throughout North America. As a young kid, he was a champion traditional dancer. Everyone knew him all over in Canada and the United States all the way to Arizona. His friends knew him for his rapping, Strathmore knew him for his hockey, he went to high school here, he played for the Okotoks Bisons and he got his certification as a heavy equipment operator.”


Brothers Kody and Brandon Giffen were the perpetrators of the crime. Brandon, the actual shooter, was charged with first-degree murder, but, in the end, convicted of manslaughter and given a light sentence. Melody laments: “First Nations are always, always for years and years, always put through injustice.”

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