Darius Clark Monroe doesn’t have the typical background of most filmmakers who world premiered their films at SXSW this year. Sure, he went to NYU. But before that, he robbed a bank. And he decided he wanted to be a filmmaker while in prison. His film, EVOLUTION OF A CRIMINAL, represents the first time Monroe and his family look back at the crime he committed when he was just 16 years old. I had a chance to sit down with Monroe and have a great long talk about just how a seemingly ‘good kid’ with a supportive family ends up in jail. And then, how he ends up at SXSW.
Part confessional, part making amends, part crime reenactment, EVOLUTION OF A CRIMINAL is a singular film that finds Darius getting in over his head quickly, and then paying the consequences for years after. Even after serving his time and moving on with his life, he had never really examined the events of that day.

“My parents and myself, we were consumed by the case,” Monroe remembers “we never really reached out to the people in the bank.”

The film becomes a chance to do that. Not just to apologize, but to really understand what he had put these people through. Monroe hears his victims saying things like “I thought I was going to die. I’m thinking about my wife my children who I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to,” Monroe recounts, then turns on himself — “and who am I as a person to put that weight on you – and I didn’t realize that until I went back.”

Of course, he never could have understood that at that age, but that’s what makes the film so compelling. It’s almost a conversation between his older and younger selves. Add to that his friends who also participated in the robbery, one of whom still seems to be living in the shadow of crime. He asks them to step back with him, just like he did his family. “I knew emotionally it was going to take a lot out of all of us. But the people who were involved, who were victimized, who were going to be swept into this all over again – I didn’t want to burden them with any more.” He was actually worried for his and his crew’s safety. Monroe says “I didn’t know what type of response they were going to have … this is Texas.”

Just as interesting as the film itself, and its journey of ‘owning up’ of his past, is Monroe’s journey as a filmmaker. Growing up, film wasn’t a passion by any means. He watched what his parents suggested or whatever was on TV. “Nothing about it that really inspired me to say this is what I want to do” he says. But prison changed things. “Being isolated forces your imagination to flourish,” Monroe says. He would spend all night lying in bed in the dark “daydreaming, seeing these stories I wanted to tell.” At the time, he didn’t even know that going to school for film was a thing you could do. But it was there, serving his time, that he decided he wanted to be a filmmaker. Devoid of any tools other than books, Monroe would read a story and think ‘what would be my version of this, if I was to adapt it.’ The prison library had a USA Today with an article on the top film schools in the country. He scoured over the list of alumni and saw for NYU names like Scorcese Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee and thought “that New York program seems to be a little on the fringe.” He had always thought New York would be a little more accepting than his hometown of Houston and that “maybe filmmaking would be the type of thing where I wouldn’t be harshly judged for my record.”

It would be easy to think that Monroe went to film school to tell his side of the story, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. This project wasn’t even on his radar until his third year when he was standing in a bank in New York and was overcome with this fear it was going to be robbed, putting himself in the place of his victims all those years before. He told his thesis advisor, Spike Lee, that this was the film he wanted to make. At the time no one at NYU even knew he had been to prison. “I remember him getting up from his desk,” Monroe tells me, “opening up the door – and he had his wallet like sitting up on the table and he had put it away and he was like ‘hold up. Robbery ?!?! What? Tell me the story, tell me the story” and by their second meeting he had offered to executive produce. And Spike Lee stuck with him, for seven years, calling once or twice a week during the interviews and staying on his case “when are you going to finish this film, how’s it coming, when can I see it,” Monroe says, “the whole time, the entire seven years, Spike was on my ass about finishing the movie – this film has gotta get done.”

Of course, in my opinion, Spike Lee probably made the best movie ever about a bank robbery, THE INSIDE MAN, so he had to have been a pretty amazing advisor. The key for both of them and why the movie is so successful, is that the event and the lives it touched (or broke) speaks for itself. The film doesn’t need to be flashy to make its point. There is no moment where we lose ourselves in some sort of docugenius wizardy. “I didn’t want people to think I was using this film as a calling card” Monroe swears, “this film for me is not necessarily for the festival circuit. There are young boys who are being lost in the system who I want to talk to.” Young boys like him, or completely dissimilar. “It’s not that difficult to get into trouble,” he admits. It’s how you handle it afterwards that proves who you really are.

EVOLUTION OF A CRIMINAL screens next at Dallas International Film Festival this weekend.


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