While attending NYU Film School, Darius Clark Monroe got an idea for his first feature-length film. He would tell the story of how he robbed a bank when he was 16 years old—which, in fact, he did—but not just the story of the robbery, and being punished for it. Monroe wanted to tell the story of his a Southern black family, the effects of generational poverty, trauma, desperation, the prison system and redemption. He captured all of this in his autobiographical documentary, Evolution of a Criminal. Executive-produced by Spike Lee, Evolution of a Criminal, which took Monroe seven years to complete, features interviews with the family members, friends, teachers and some of the victims affected by Monroe’s action, all sorting through the root causes and figuring a way to deal with the aftermath. I spoke with Monroe recently by phone; during our conversation, Monroe told me what he hopes people take away from his film, which opened this past weekend in New York City.

The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mychal Denzel Smith: You robbed a bank when you were 16 years old. What made you want to make a movie about it?

Darius Clark Monroe: I think it initially just started from me wanting to go back and find the customers inside the bank. I realized I just was so soaked up by the case and prison and my life then, I just never dealt with [the fact] that I had a hold on these individuals. Then I talked to my mom about it and I realized my family, we haven’t talked about any of it. The whole reason behind me getting into trouble in the first place and me wanting to do the robbery, [our economic situation] definitely influenced my behavior. We really didn’t talk about it. So I think the film almost gave her an excuse to sit down and have a [conversation we wouldn’t] ordinarily have.

The film is called Evolution of a Criminal. But anyone who watches probably isn’t going to come away with the sense of you being a criminal in the way we typically understand who is a “criminal.” So why name the film Evolution of a Criminal?

I wasn’t speaking necessarily to my own definition of who I am or who I was back then, but more to how black and brown boys are painted by society. Just being a young black male is already worthy of being criminalized. So I wanted to subvert the audiences’ expectations of who and what we think a criminal is. What does a criminal look like to you? Who is that person? Because there is no singular or broad stroke that just boxes everybody into. There are thousands and millions of individuals who find themselves in really hard situations and tough predicaments and they have sometimes to make unfortunate choices. Are these people criminals? These are people who are complicated, may have made a bad mistake or made a bad choice. For me the title subverts expectations. You go in and you’re expecting to watch this show about a “criminal,” this kid going bad. And what you see is an individual who has been consistent, personality-wise, throughout his life. It makes it difficult trying to force you into a category. Human beings are way more complicated than that.

And what are the factors that led you to make the decision to rob the bank?

My whole life as long as I could remember, my mother would get up and work. My stepfather had two jobs. These were working people. And I just couldn’t get over the fact that they would work all day, be exhausted, and I couldn’t really see how there was any light at the end of the tunnel. I was getting old enough to see [economic] disparity in [my hometown of] Houston. And you see what struggle and stress looks like. Even though we had clothes and food, a roof over our head, I could tell things were precarious when it came to our finances. I was always well aware of that.

In 1996 we had a home invasion. My house was robbed. The neighbors’ house was robbed. We didn’t have a lot of money to begin with, and that just seemed so invasive. I was working part-time at Jack-in-the-Box, and none of the small money I was making just seemed to be making hell of a lot of difference. I couldn’t figure out how to respond to [the burglary] at 16, but I knew that I did not want to retaliate by robbing other people’s homes. Robbing a bank [didn’t] feel at the time as extreme, because it felt like an institution. The money belonged to this institution; they will be able to replace it. So in my mind I tried to rationalize the whole crime as now I go take the money, it won’t hurt anybody. It’s a huge bank. We’ll get away. So that was just the being young and short-sighted. It just started as this thing we can pull off and get little money, and be done with it.

At one point in the film you say your family was doing okay. You weren’t on the path to wealth, but you could pay your bills. It was the home invasion that set off this robbery, that set off the idea that you had to do something, because one little incident like that can set you back. Not just financially—it can demoralize you.

People think that you have to be destitute to know what that feeling feels like. I’m not ashamed that we weren’t. I felt in my gut that we were a situation away from slipping down further into a worse situation. I couldn’t tell what that was, I could just feel it. I felt it was really fragile. We were looking for stability, but it just never felt like stability was a real option. The car breaks down, it needs brakes—and where are you going to take that money from? How are you going to cover this—are you going to pay with a credit card? It’s strenuous, for a family with children and lives to protect and provide for. It seemed like a lot for mom and my stepdad. Both of them were trying to do their best, and just couldn’t get a leg up. It wasn’t because of a lack of effort—these people were hard-working people.

And you went to prison. How long were you there?

I was in prison for three years of a five-year sentence.

What people could take away from your story is that you’re exceptional. You went in prison already having been a straight-A student. So it doesn’t seem too far fetched for you to go into prison and continue your studies and get your GED and start college classes. But those aren’t opportunities available to everyone in prison.

What you said is true—I was not a perfect student, but I definitely had an interest in school before I went to prison. In prison, the guys who were in trouble in school before they went to prison, they were decent students [academically]. Once they got into prison and decided to focus, they were able to do well. [Others] were people I knew instantly had been allowed to slip through the cracks repeatedly. Even if they weren’t in an environment like a prison, when it comes to just getting their reading levels together, getting their math skills up, taking a GED test—it felt like a huge challenge. It’s embarrassing to say, “Hey I need help. I need assistance.” There’s just so many distractions [in prison], so many things in there to stop you from bettering yourself. A lot of these guys want to do it. Some don’t know how to do it. If they find out how to do it, it’s a long, long process. If you don’t really have the tools before you go in there, it could become a complete wasteland.

You were compelled, as part of a mandatory prison labor program, to pick cotton, and that ‘s the most striking image I took away from the film—of the cotton fields, and listening to you talk about your experience while in prison, being a black man in the South, picking cotton. If you can’t convince people any other way that the prison system is a continuation of slavery, I think that image does it.

I knew I wanted to use [the cotton fields] to convey [my experience] because it is shocking. At 17 years old I didn’t know that cotton still grew. Going up to the prison, and I’m looking out of the window, I see way out in the distance fields of white. I was trying to wrap my head around what the hell that was. The fact that it was cotton and having to go out and pick it blew my mind, man. It blew my mind. I knew I was in that place because some bad choices I made, but this is surreal. It was like another level and it really opened my eyes to what the whole system was. I felt it was all planned and mapped out. It was no coincidence. I was at a place on a farm or a plantation as they call it. [Out of] 2,000 inmates, the majority are black and brown. Only had a handful of white boys. Only a handful of Asians. Even in prison the whites typically had the better jobs. And in the fields, you see a sea of black men working. Back-breaking work, picking cotton. There are people working in the fields, picking cotton and just working in general, getting paid zero dollars [and] other companies are profiting from that. So I don’t know what you want to call that, but it is a system and it’s a system inspired by another system set to oppress. And it’s a trap. If people leave [the film] with nothing else [they should] understand [that] this whole system is a trap to defeat you, and keep you down and to turn off your light so you can’t contribute to society, so you can’t bring forth new ideas and new experiences.

What do you want people to think when they see this film?

I want people to think about their own experience. Just their own lives, the choices we’ve [made] as human begins and the mistakes we have made that we have regretted. I hope they would think about the fact that they don’t want to be judged forever by that mistake, by that event and hopefully it will provide a sense of compassion.

And what do you want them to feel?

I feel like some folks cannot empathize with people who look different, who have a different [experience]. I hope the audiences are able to empathize. I’m not asking for people to like me or like the story to prove. I’m saying empathize with something other than yourself, something outside yourself. Think beyond your own singular experience, and understand that we all have our own different walks and different journeys. It’s not all the same.

Who needs to see this film?

I want to say “everybody.“ Is that too broad? I know that there are 2 million people who are currently in the [prison] system or getting out of the system, and that’s a large population of folks. And these people have records now. They have a history. These people still have dreams. They still have desires. They still want to live their life. They’d still like to vote. They’re still going to pay taxes. And they need to be given the tools to do that. I feel like you can’t send somebody [away for] some time and once they’re out continue to dramatically creating incarcerated individuals surviving in a free society. And that’s exactly what happens. And so I’m hoping I’m talking to the people who have been down a similar path I’ve been down, [saying] don’t give up, don’t feel discouraged, and move forward. And they don’t have to be stuck in that situation. We need people [who] are not just a part of the system, we need folks who make decisions, people who rent out apartments, people who give out cars loans, people who [do hiring]. We need everybody to understand. I’m not saying we need a parade or a welcome wagon. I’m just saying these people have served their time, and in most cases served too much time, and they should be allowed to be back in society. I don’t know how else to say it.

Evolution of a Criminal is showing at the IFC Center in New York City.