Darius Clark Monroe's "Evolution of a Criminal"

As I mentioned when I first reviewed “Evolution of a Criminal” earlier this year after it debuted at the South by Southwest Film Festival, it’s best to walk into Darius Clark Monroe’s first feature without knowing much about it except perhaps that it’s an autobiography that isn’t quite like anything that’s come before it. Then again, to hear it from Monroe, the film has surprised even those who lived through it with the filmmaker.

“Family members that know the full story get caught up in the [film] like they still don’t know how it’s going to end,” Monroe laughs now. “That’s been fascinating to see.”

However, no one is likely more surprised by “Evolution of a Criminal” than Monroe, who has spent the past seven years delving back into his teen years‎ to investigate how he went from student council member with sterling report cards to a felon who spent three years in prison for attempting to knock over a Bank of America. Naturally, Monroe was in a bank when he first got the idea to make a film about his experience, but he likely would’ve let the past be the past if it wasn’t for the looming deadline of creating a thesis film for NYU. With a nudge from his cinematographer Daniel Patterson and the additional encouragement of his professor Spike Lee, ‎Monroe decided to go back to Stafford, Texas to interview not only his family, friends and teachers during that time, but also those who were left shaken by his crime, from the customers inside the bank to the prosecutor who put him behind bars.

Speaking to Monroe today, the honors student shines through as there’s an unmistakable cogency and conviction to the filmmaker’s voice, but “Evolution of a Criminal” is riveting for the exact opposite reason as he searches to reconcile the impulses of his youth with the perspective of time, uncovering a great deal of larger societal concerns in the process, such as income inequality and the unconscionable disparity of African-American men in prison for disproportionate sentences to their crimes. While Monroe was in Los Angeles to promote the film and a Kickstarter campaign to push it into communities who normally don’t see documentaries, he spoke about how he’s spent nearly a quarter of his life on a story he never intended to tell on screen, how the film itself evolved over its long production and the best advice he received to shape it.

Once you had the idea to make a film about your past, did you have to overcome the idea of putting yourself out there in this way?

Sigrid Tillman and her son Darius Clark Monroe in "Evolution of a Criminal"
Sigrid Tillman and her son Darius Clark Monroe in “Evolution of a Criminal”

The thing that was interesting was that I thought I was over it. It had been about a decade or so. I thought through my incarceration and all that alone time that I had somehow processed what happened. When I got out, I was just really free to move on and be disconnected from what happened when I was 16. There was something about being in that bank. I have no idea even now what I thought I saw because there was no robbery that was taking place, but it truly made me think about what I did, what we did to those innocent people inside that place.

I was a grown man at this point. I just couldn’t fathom walking into a bank with a shotgun and robbing it. Sometimes I was just like “Did we really do that? Did we really put people through this type of trauma?” I just couldn’t get over it and I really wanted to go down and I wanted to apologize, but I didn’t know what was going to come of it. I didn’t know exactly what I was seeking, but I wanted to meet them and to hear their side of the story. I also wanted them to know that I was doing better with my life and that I wasn’t what they thought, that I wasn’t the kid who ran into the bank. I wanted them to understand the circumstances and see that this was a stupid decision that involved way too many people. It had a reach far beyond anything I ever could have expected.

Did you actually have conversations about what you did with your family and friends before putting it on camera?

We would talk a little bit about prison. It’d be referenced, but it was always brief. There was never any deep discussion about the robbery. It was always like “Oh, I can’t believe tou did that crazy thing. I’m glad you’re out now.” People are busy, just trying to live life, so to be able to just sit down and talk about something, most families don’t really have the time to do it. We didn’t have the time until I presented this whole idea about doing a documentary. That was the first time we really really got to the meat of it.

It’s going to sound like a backhanded compliment, and part of it you couldn’t control since over the course of seven years, digital camera technology changed so much, but there’s a roughness to the film that actually makes it feel even more personal, as if it was a result of a single voice. Was that something you actually wanted?

Initially, it wasn’t. At the time in 2007, it was standard definition and we didn’t have the funds to buy any fancy HD gear. The old school look of it wasn’t intentional. Once we started to include HD and RED footage in the reenactments, there was something about it that reminded me of a photo album brought to life. What was cool was that in addition to the way the standard definition looked and felt, the reenactments also felt dreamy, like a memory and all of it somehow blended together. I still feel like the film is a well-made film, but there is something about it that doesn’t feel slick and I like that. I’m glad the film doesn’t feel slick and cold and distant. That is feels intimate, that is feels warm because of what we were trying grapple with. The film is just a reflection of our emotions and the people who were in the movie.

Darius Clark Monroe's "Evolution of a Criminal"I’ve heard the reenactments weren’t part of the initial conception of the movie. How did this project evolve over the seven years of filming it?

The first couple years I thought this film would actually show me making the film, that it would be interesting to look at me trying to make this film about this story. Then I realized that I had no interest in that. There was something about it that didn’t seem authentic. I had to get some distance and I really wanted to get the crux which was how did I get involved in this in the first place?

In terms of structure, it took some time for me to realize what part of this story I wanted to focus on. Once I got to that, I realize that we didn’t have any of the video tape [of the robbery]. There was no physical evidence after a decade. As much as I enjoyed hearing the story [from the people involved], there was a part of me that wanted to experience seeing it. I wanted the audience to not just trust the voices of these three guys that are grownups because it’s one thing to hear this story but a lot of times people, they know that the folks are speaking about something that’s in the past and all they see is the present. All they see is this grown man.

I didn’t want to distort reality, but I wanted to play with the reality in a way, so it was [important to] have those stories laid over reenactments that weren’t just background noise. I wanted to capture the same tone and level of truth in those reenactments as the interviews, and as a storyteller, I love the fact that the documentary allows you to play with different genres and allows you to experiment with the whole medium.

The reenactments allowed me to visualize moments, some I wasn’t present for. When Pastor David Ned said he had to console one of the customers inside the bank, he was freaking out and I wasn’t present for that moment, but as a director and even as a subject and somebody who harmed these people, I felt a duty and a responsibility to show that and for audiences to see not just the robbery but how the customers grappled with what happened after. Those are choices that came from having this film on my heart for seven years, just trusting my gut and saying “You know what? I’m not going to be forced to follow some documentary rule or standard. I’m going make the film that I want to make.”

Were you able to fill some gaps in your own mind through doing the interviews? There must’ve things that you didn’t know about your situation, particularly in regards to the length of your incarceration, that making this film probably clarified and other epiphanies.

Yeah, but I wouldn’t say it was an epiphany for me. It was an epiphany for the audience. A lot of times we think about individuals who are incarcerated and there’s a definite stigma. We think of these individuals as bad men and women who should be punished. People watch this film and they see it. They’re like, “Oh, maybe you weren’t a criminal. Maybe you were just a good person who made bad choices.” I always like to take that and expand upon it. Overwhelmingly, a lot of people I was incarcerated with were good people who made bad choices, yet they’re going to be stigmatized for making that one choice. When they get out of prison, they’ll try to get their life together – they try to go to school, get a job, get a car loan, try to vote and they’re going to continue to be punished for that choice.

The conversation about that stigma and subverting who or what a criminal is is a conversation I always wanted to have. It’s a conversation that I’m continuing to have and it’s been challenging because even in [post-screening] Q and As, people still bring up stereotypical ideas and they’ll say something that may be disrespectful or offensive. It’s really hard for people to shift their ideology and to expand beyond their own experience, to empathize with other people. When people see that this is not just a film about personal responsibility, but this is also a film that deals with systemic issues, it’s much more complicated. It really puts some people in a really tough position. Some folks want to hold onto things that are easy. I’m trying to explain that life is not easy, this film is not easy. There’s no black and white. There’s complicated things in the film and it’s okay because we’re complicated people. Sometimes people want to have a right answer. I just don’t have it. I hope that’s clear.

Since this film was so personal, did you have a sounding board to tell you if you might be withholding something or you were being too hard on yourself?

Yeah, I have a circle of friends and fellow filmmakers that includes my DP Dan Patterson, Barry Jenkins, Terence Nance and filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu. I’d send an early cut just to get their opinion and as the film progressed, Tribeca Film Institute and especially Cinereach would put together little small groups of people to give notes and comments and suggestions. It was really beneficial to have people who didn’t know anything about this story watch it and respond to things that was I was possibly too close to or making judgements. It was nice to have some objective voices in the film.

My participation in the IFP Doc Lab was the first time where we had mentors come in, professionals who had worked on tons of documentaries. They understood what I was going for, but they also were able to give me strong notes. One of the greatest notes I received was from Orlando Bagwell [director of the landmark civil rights miniseries “Eyes on the Prize”]. He just allowed me to be free when he told me I didn’t have to end the film with an additional wrap up of the film, giving more reasons why I made it or how I felt. He says “How you feel is the whole experience. Don’t feel like you have to end it with you where you have to say anything more.” I had extra stuff with me talking and trying to make sense of it. He said, “No, it’s okay. The film can represent you.” It was just great to hear that from somebody I respected and I needed that because I was definitely too close.

Now that the film has premiered, has it changed your relationships with the people who are in the film?

It’s been an interesting experience. I’ve been able to connect with a lot of folks. It’s been a journey for me but also for everyone’s who’s participated in the film. For my family, for the victims. What’s remarkable is that people see the vulnerability and at Q & As, a lot of people will bring up their own issues. It may not be related to a crime, but their own issues of forgiveness and making a mistake and obstacles they’ve struggled with. That’s been really refreshing to see people feel comfortable enough to share a side of their own story they may not have normally shared.

The film has opened in New York and Los Angeles already, but you’re pursuing a Kickstarter campaign to support a broader release before an October 29th deadline. Why did you feel crowdsourcing was necessary?

I realized there was something happening in these Q and As, just having the communal experience of watching this film and then a discussion and using this film as a springboard for greater issues that we’re dealing with in a society. I didn’t feel like waiting [for distribution]. I also didn’t feel like I needed the blessing of a traditional distributor to tell me what I could and could not do with my own film. There’s so many people who I feel like this film speaks to but I don’t necessarily see them at South by Southwest or BAMcinemaFest or the Los Angeles Film Festival. I was challenged. How do I release this film? How do I get it to the people? I don’t have the funds to do it.

So I want to take this film not just to New York and L.A., but across the country to real people who are dealing with the issues, taking the story to those communities, to prisons, to schools working on the curriculum. These are things I wanted to do before I even finished the film and the Kickstarter is going to help me take this film to where I believe it needs to go — to serve underserved communities and a variety of people that traditionally don’t experience a film like this.

"Evolution of a Criminal" director Darius Clark MonroeNow that you’ve made a film that reveals your past to the world, are you happy this is your public introduction in a way?

It’s weird because it is for some, for some it isn’t. It’s just our obsession with the word “feature.” I’ve been making short films since 2005. They’re online. I’ve been at festivals across the country numerous times and this isn’t the first time I’ve created something, but on the feature level, it’s a relief. It’s also overwhelming because people are still obsessed with trying to put someone into a box. People say, “Well, are you a documentary filmmaker?” or “What type of stories do you want to tell?” I’m just a filmmaker. This is just one of many, many stories I want to tell.

It’s always strange too when I hear people who say, “Well, did you make this documentary to get your career started?” or “Are you benefiting from this crime?” I just challenge anyone to make a documentary. I say, ”That’s not really the nature of documentary. Anyone who has made one knows the work and the pain and the perseverance to do it.” This documentary was almost as challenging and took twice as long as my incarceration. But it’s something I believed in and I knew once it was done, if my family liked it, that was good enough for me. The fact that other people like it, it’s icing on the cake.

“Evolution of a Criminal” opens on October 17 in Los Angeles at the Music Hall 3 and on October 20 in Portland, Oregon at the Clinton Street Theater. More dates and theaters can be found here.