“He doesn’t look like a criminal.” Filmmaker Darius Clark Monroe has heard that statement too many times over the last fifteen years. At the age of sixteen, Monroe and two friends robbed a bank and were sent to prison for their crimes. Seventeen years later, Monroe premiered his story at SXSW in Austin, Texas, alongside hundreds of other filmmakers with a far more pedigreed background. The long journey from the popular honor roll student to the frustrated bank robber didn’t happen over night; and neither did Monroe’s personal evolution.
Produced by Spike Lee, Evolution of a Criminal is Monroe’s story of trouble and triumph. The documentary features detailed accounts from his family and friends who remember a happy honor student poised for success. Part confessional, part interview, the audience experiences Monroe’s evolution through a montage of photos and first hand accounts. Monroe retells his childhood with warmth and fondness. Adding to his story are his accomplices who have taken different paths since the robbery, his teacher who applauds him as a “good” kid, and the victim who chose to finally forgive him. As the story progresses, we explore the financial background of his two parent home and understand the frustration with his family’s constant financial instability. While his family dealt with the hardships of living paycheck to paycheck, a young Monroe was hatching a plan that would change their lives forever.
The film touches on several themes affecting the African American community. From income inequality to forgiveness, Evolution provides a heavy dose of reality seldom showcased outside of inner city stories. Monroe came from a loving two parent home. His family was not in poverty nor suffering from any kind of emotional or substance abuse. Monroe and his family explain their financial issues, which strikes as a common theme in middle class families - living paycheck to paycheck, being one emergency away from losing it all. They describe a young boy who perhaps knew too much about the family’s financial problems, but sought to make a difference in a disparaging way.
Reliving the moments before and after the robbery was no small task. Monroe bravely faced each disappointed teacher, heartbroken family member, and bruised victim with the cameras rolling. It’s no wonder, between finishing NYU and searching for closure for his mistakes, it took Monroe seven years to complete the documentary. As he was finishing up the film, Monroe explains that he knew he needed the audience to feel what it was like to be a young boy on the verge of committing a major crime. So he took a risk. He introduced the robbery as a reenactment that provided a slow, haunting scene. Reenactments are tricky. There is the fear that the actors won’t live up the weight of the scene or that the scene may come off as insincere. As a young filmmaker looking to make his feature debut, the risk could have stunted his career before it fully took off. In the end, the risk paid off. The reenactment of the robbery was a sincere look at three teenage boys in over their heads.
The title, Evolution of a Criminal, was also carefully chosen by Monroe to add a sting to societal stereotypes of young Black males and his own transition from convicted teen to a rising filmmaker. “Spike Lee and I disagreed on the title of the film because he said it’s the assumption that Black people are born criminals and we aren’t,” he added, “the reason I chose that title is because society assumes that we are; that somehow we are born that way and I wanted to demystify that assumption.“
Heartfelt and organic, Evolution delivers a true chronicle of the evolution from a young, naïve boy to a man understanding the ripple effects of his actions. Monroe doesn’t shy away from the harsh accounts from his family and the victims of the robbery. The young filmmaker wants audiences to experience the effects of a bad choice and realize that there is no image or profile associated with criminals. He explains, “I wanted to pull the rug from under people. When people say I didn’t know you were a criminal-you don’t look like that, you didn’t speak like that- what is a criminal supposed to look and sound like? “
Without glorifying the robbery or preaching an underwhelming cautionary tale, Monroe seeks to debunk society’s wolf like image of black youth with his own tale of triumph. Evolution doesn’t play coy with its’ audience. Instead it allows viewers to experience the motive and effects of a crime, while questioning our beliefs about the image and mindset of a convicted criminal.