Seventeen years ago, three teenagers in Houston, Texas, met in their high school parking lot, but they weren’t headed to class. They drove to a payphone, and Darius Clark Monroe, the leader of the group, called in a fake bomb threat to the school, hoping to keep the police busy. That done, they donned disguises, drove to a small local Bank of America, and held it up using an empty shotgun, walking away with $140,000. They then returned to school and finished the day. They didn’t want to be counted absent.
For years, Monroe had worried about his family’s money troubles. His mother and stepfather worked hard but struggled to pay the bills. When Monroe started working at a local superstore, things got better, until his own family was robbed. An episode of America’s Most Wanted helped him realize that even very thoughtless criminals sometimes got away unscathed. Monroe, who had a reputation as one of the best students in his school, knew he could surely get a way with robbing a bank. He was wrong. A month after the robbery, he was arrested. Even though he was 16 at the time, he was tried as an adult due to the severity of the crime.
In prison, Monroe realized that he wanted to be a filmmaker. He served for three years, then was released on parole. He earned enough credits during his sentence to help him complete a bachelor’s at the University of Houston two years later. He then attended Tisch School of the Arts, where he made the robbery the subject of his thesis film. Spike Lee, the artistic director of the graduate film program, executive-produced the project.
The result is Evolution of a Criminal, an autobiographical documentary about how a 16-year-old can become a bank robber. The film begins with Monroe as a child, walking his mother down the aisle and giving her away to her current husband. That loving relationship with his mother has lasted. As they speak about each other in the film, it’s obvious that they would do anything for each other and forgive all.
The film is a patchwork of family photographs and home videos, understated reenactments, and interviews with Monroe, as well as segments in which he turns the camera on himself. There is no single narrator—events unfold with multiple voices speaking over the footage.
I caught up with Monroe in New York to chat more about the film and what society thinks a “criminal” should look like.
VICE: In the film, people speak about how you’ve “turned your life around” and are a different person than you were when you robbed the bank. Do you see yourself that way?
Darius Clark Monroe: No. What’s funny is that when I did my pre-thesis review back in 2007, I was telling my professor, Jay Anania, about how I turned my life around, and did a 180. He says, “Darius, I’ve only known you for three years. I’m willing to bet a lot of money that you’re the same guy who robbed the bank—that’s what’s fascinating to me.” People think you have to be Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde.
With this film, I think about my whole life and about the little kid in the wedding coming down the aisle. I’ve learned a lot in my life since that, but there’s so much of him, so much of the same person that’s been throughout this whole process.
In terms of the law and crime, people think you have to be a bad person in order to make a negative choice. That’s not always the case. Good people make very fucked-up decisions all the time.
How did you turn something that actually happened to you into a cinematic story line?
The film shifted from what I thought would be the story of this guy who had this horrible incident happen to him, and now he’s a filmmaker and he’s doing well and he’s a positive role model. As I looked at the edit, I thought, this is boring to me. What’s more interesting is, how did this kid get involved in crime?
A lot of documentaries include general information about whatever topic the film covers, but you kept your film very close to your own personal story. Can you explain that decision?
We interviewed all the experts—the counselors, the therapists. But as we kept going deeper and deeper into the edit, we realized that this was indeed a story about not just me but me and my family. In the cut there would be these personal moments, and then an expert would cut in, and it would just feel cold. Not that it wasn’t important. I just believe the audience is smarter than we give them credit for. People are well aware of a lot of the circumstances.
The more personal it became, the more specific it became, things became much more universal to me. You see real people bare themselves and talk about their experiences, and my hope is that people do begin to have an ideological shift in terms of what their truth is. People who may have never struggled, or who struggled long ago and didn’t realize it was still ongoing, when they see this they’re like, Oh, wow, these are real people. This is not a stat.
I’ve witnessed people react to my film. I’ve witnessed people who I would never in a million years have guessed would respond to this film in an emotional way.
Do you remember any specific reactions that were surprising?
What’s weird is that people won’t tell you. I was at the Dallas International Film Festival. A cool, down-to-earth white couple. After the film the wife came up to me. She was in tears. She said, "This reminded me of an event in my life. I can’t say." She started crying again and said, “Thank you.” And I looked at her husband. Again, I didn’t know this man. He was in tears, and I thought, What happened? Did they make a judgment call on someone? Were they judged? Were they not forgiven?
One woman from Duke had written me off as a con, a felon, a fuck-up for life. When she watched the film and we spoke, she said her brain had an explosion because I defied what she thought I was supposed to be like. I’m really curious when we talk about criminals. What does that person look like in your imagination? People always say to me, "Darius, you don’t look like a criminal. You don’t remind me of a criminal." Who does? A lot of them won’t tell me. They won’t say.
Does it bother you when people say, “You don’t look like a criminal?”
On the one hand I’m like, “Oh, is that a compliment?” But quickly after that, it does bother me.
People can say all types of things at Q&As, and they don’t even realize it’s offensive. One woman came up to me and said, “I’m just so glad that you’re well spoken. You speak so well for a black man. Maybe if Trei and Pierre [Darius’s accomplices] could speak as well as you, their life would be better now.” And this was a compliment. She meant it. She gave me a hug. I just thanked her. But that’s offensive to me. That’s offensive to me!
They say that to me about Pierre, still just judging him on the surface, based just on his speech, not even realizing how many times he’s just slipped through the cracks, how his education was not the same education I received. He didn’t get the same support that I got from my family, from my teachers. The film deals with personal responsibility, but there are also systemic issues that people just check out on.
If someone else had directed the film, what would they have missed?
I’m curious as to how someone else would have come at it. I’m sure there would have been way more rap and hip-hop in the soundtrack. Parts of this story and this journey would have been exploited in ways that I don’t think I’d be comfortable with. Or maybe not! But I do feel in this current climate it definitely would have been too flashy, too bad-ass, too hip, too much about the 'hood, as opposed to about humanity.
Evolution of a Criminal will premiere in LA on June 12 at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and on June 23 in New York at BAM.
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Topics: Spike Lee, documentaries, documentary, film, criminals, crime, Houston, Texas, America’s Most Wanted, prison, Evolution of a Criminal, Dallas International Film Festival, SXSW 2014, BAM, Brooklyn Academy of Music, LA, criminal minds, inside criminal minds