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.