'Evolution of a Criminal'

'Evolution of a Criminal' (Handout photo)

At the age of 16, high-schooler Darius Clark Monroe—daunted by his family’s money problems and possessing the kind of adolescent penchant for poor decision-making that every teen has at that age—robbed a Bank of America in Houston, Texas, and, as punishment, served three years of a five-year sentence starting in 1998. Now, Monroe has made a sobering film reflecting on the decision.

Executive-produced by Spike Lee, Evolution of a Criminal is an autobiographical documentary laced with nail-biting, Michael Mann-style recreations of the crime and equally tense interviews with family, the two friends who helped Monroe commit the robbery, and a few of the innocents in the bank when it occurred. They all speak directly to Monroe, removing the usual, so-called “objective” interlocutor documentaries often have. One fascinating moment finds Monroe bluntly asking his mother why she didn’t turn him in when he dropped a size-13 shoebox stuffed with around $40,000 in front of her. Another occurs when he gets two of his NYU film-school professors to admit that they probably wouldn’t have embraced Darius had they known of his criminal past.

Think of Monroe’s approach as an inverted version of Claude Lanzmann’s ballsy documentary Shoah, in which the French filmmaker confronted former Nazis with their actions, often using hidden cameras. Here, Monroe confronts others with his actions and his guilt, going so far as visiting people door-to-door, unannounced, and apologizing to those who endured the trauma of having a shotgun shoved in their faces on a day they expected to be routine. “It was like everything in the inside of me was shaking,” recalls a pastor who was there that day.

Monroe’s almost obsequious desire to take full credit for his moral failings makes this a touching, real talk-entrenched film, as much about personal responsibility as it is about the potential for personal transformation.