'Evolution of a Criminal': Film Review

Evolution of a Criminal Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Evolution of a Criminal

Evolution of a Criminal Still - H 2014

Few first-person documentaries have as harrowing a story to tell

Darius Clark Monroe's documentary recounts his experience of robbing a bank when he was 16 years old and going to prison

Documentary filmmakers often turn to their own lives for inspiration, but few have as compelling a story to mine as Darius Clark Monroe. When he was 16 years old and living with his financially struggling family in a Houston, Texas suburb, he and two accomplices robbed a bank and managed to make off with approximately $140,000. It wasn't long before he and one of his cohorts was caught — the other somehow managed to avoid prosecution — and Monroe, tried as an adult, was sentenced to a five-year prison sentence as a result of a plea bargain.

He served three years, spending his days working in the fields picking cotton. After his release he eventually wound up in NYU Film School and began working on a documentary that essentially serves as a mea culpa for his criminal act. One of his professors was Spike Lee, who serves as executive producer for Evolution of a Criminal.

While the film could have been an exercise in self-justification, it instead offers no excuses, only explanations. Monroe couldn't stand to see his mother and stepfather, seen in a joyful home movie at their wedding, barely managing to make ends meet. When their house was robbed and several VCRs were taken, it lit a fire under him. He first stole several VCRs from the store in which he worked part-time, justifying the act to himself by reasoning that he was only replacing what had been stolen, and that the corporation that owned the store would hardly miss the loss.

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But that initial crime inevitably led to a bigger plan, for which he enlisted two friends. Barging into the bank wearing a skeleton mask and accompanied by a cohort with a shotgun, Monroe actually managed to get away with it until one of the robber's bragging led to his arrest.

The film includes a well-staged, dramatic reenactment of the crime, but its mainly comprised of incisive interviews with the figures involved, including Monroe's parents, who admitted to spending some of the money; various friends and family members; one of the prosecuting attorneys, who expresses gratification that Monroe turned his life around but says that she won't be fully convinced until he turns 50 without recidivism; and even one of the bystanders at the bank, now a pastor, who says that he was less than forgiving at the time. Monroe is also seen attempting to talk to other people involved, including the bank guard, who want nothing to do with him.

Shot over the course of several years, Evolution of a Crime is often rough-hewn in its execution, but it's deeply moving nonetheless. High emotionalism is on ample display, from the mother who tears up while talking about her son's desperate act and her own complicity to the accomplice, clearly still struggling with his life, who off-handedly comments about the past, "Shit happens."

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The title, ironically, is somewhat misleading. The story is not about the evolution of a criminal, but rather the evolution of a talented filmmaker who's mined his own sorry past to powerful effect.

Production: June 24th, DeerJen, Aliquot Films
Cast: Dante E. Clark, Vladimir Versailles, Jeremie Harris, Rosalyn Coleman, Benton Greene
Director: Darius Clark Monroe
Producer: Jen Gatien
Executive producer: Spike Lee
Director of photography: Daniel Patterson
Editor: Doug Lenox
Production designer: Charlotte Royer
Costume designer: Sarita Fellows

Composer: T. Griffin

No rating, 83 minutes