Darius Clark Monroe robbed a bank in Stafford, Texas, at gunpoint with two friends in 1997 when he was just 16 years old. (His parents were having money troubles, and he says he naively thought this would be a good way to help them.) He was tried as an adult and served three years in prison for the crime.
Now, you’d think Monroe might want to distance himself from his criminal act, but years later, while a student at NYU film school, Monroe was compelled to revisit his past and began shooting the documentary Evolution of a Criminal with one of his NYU professors—Spike Lee—on board as executive producer.
The introspective film is made up of interviews with Monroe’s family members, teachers and law enforcement officials. Monroe also talks to the two guys who robbed the bank with him and stages a reenactment of the crime. Some of the most intense moments come when Monroe shows up unannounced at the homes of the people who were in the bank that day, hoping to apologize for what he put them through.
Co.Create talked to Monroe about the making of the film, which was first screened at SXSW last year and will make its television debut on January 12 as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series.
Co.Create: How did it come to be that you decided to turn the camera on yourself and tell this story?
Monroe: It started because of a weird situation that happened in New York many years after the robbery. I had a really, really bad panic attack standing inside of a bank. I thought someone who was pacing back and forth outside the window was going to come in and rob it. I just created this whole incident in my head.
I knew that the panic attack was due to the fact that I had been involved in a robbery as an offender, but I always believed that I would be a victim one day. And so that’s sort of what got my mind to think about the customers inside the bank [I robbed] and the fact that I had never really just gone down to apologize, to seek these individuals out and to ask for forgiveness. I felt the need to have a conversation. I just felt like so much time had gone by, and I was ashamed that I had not really considered the fact that these people deserved a proper apology.
So was that when you knew you wanted to make a film?
No. Actually, it just turned into me wanting to go there and find the people. My best friend, Daniel Patterson, who is also the DP of the film, was like, “Take cameras with you. Who knows what may happen? You should film this journey.”
We thought the film would be more about me making the film about trying to track down these people inside the bank, and it changed completely after talking with my mother because I realized that there was just so much about the robbery and my incarceration that we never spoke about, and I became fascinated with what influenced me to make this choice in the first place.
And I knew that I was going to have to be in there because there was just no way I could ask my family to essentially rip their hearts out again and go down this road if I wasn’t willing to do it myself.
Was your family open to reliving all of this again on camera, or did it take some convincing to get them to agree to be interviewed?
They were pretty much open to it when I mentioned it to them, but the thing, I think, that was surprising for a lot of us, was that we felt there was some sense of distance from the topic and closure, but we were all fooling ourselves. I knew that for a fact because the moment we started the interviews and got to the topic of the robbery and all the circumstances around it emotions were super high. None of us had really worked through any it. I think everybody was sort of surprised by how emotional and how raw they were years later.
What was it like for you as a filmmaker to sit behind the camera and interview everyone, especially your mom? On the one hand, it must have torn you apart to see her talking about how the robbery affected her, but on the other hand, you had to keep it together to a certain degree to get the material you needed for your film.
It was definitely hard. I knew that they were story points that I needed for this film, and there were numerous times where we had to stop and just get our composure. The beautiful thing is that the DP and the small crew that we had, these were people from NYU who had come to know my mom over many years, and so everyone felt comfortable enough to just be themselves and not feel like they were going to be judged or feel embarrassed by being emotional. It was a really safe space.
With most of the family, I didn’t even have a list of questions. I knew that it was going to be more like a conversation. The hardest thing was seeing my mom get emotional and hearing about all the pain that she had to go through, especially the moments leading up to me going to court and all of the moments she describes of me being incarcerated and her not feeling like she had any idea what to do–just feeling hopeless and helpless.
You also apologize to some of the people who were in the bank at the time you rob it, showing up at their homes and knocking on their doors. What was that like?
It was terrifying. I was terrified because I didn’t know what type of response I would get or who was going to show up at the door. I also didn’t know if they were going to show up at the door with a shotgun once they found out who I was.
Did you shoot the re-enactments of the bank robbery in the town where the crime took place, or did you go elsewhere for that?
All the re-enactments, for the most part, where shot in Long Island, New York, and in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.
Was that because you didn’t want to upset people back home, or was the shift in location for production reasons?
It was cheaper, and in Long Island, there were towns that looked similar to Stafford. The biggest problem was that in Stafford, where the robbery occurred, everything has been closed down and boarded up, so it doesn’t look the same anymore. So the actual location for the re-enactment became less important for me, and it became more important to try to match the tone and match all the actions.
Sometimes people with gripping stories don’t always come up with the most creative ways to share them. They rely solely on the strength of the story, but I was struck by how beautifully shot and edited this film was.
Thank you. I appreciate that. A lot of times people just respond to the subject matter, and rightfully so. But I appreciate anyone who notices the actual craft because there were a lot of just great people who helped me to create this piece.
It’s an intense story, but there are visual sequences in the film during which the audience can take a breath for a moment and process what we’ve just seen or heard. Can you talk about how you worked with Doug Lenox, the editor?
The edit was truly collaborative. After having a full pass of the film, a lot of it was just he and I sitting in a room together, and there were moments that were definitely emotional for me, for both of us, and we felt it was appropriate that at times people should be allowed to breathe.
You don’t have to pound people over the head. You can give them information that’s visual without any words. Even with the reenactments, there are moments where you just see imagery, and you don’t hear anything. You just sort of have to process what you’re experiencing, and then you put this puzzle together.
It’s always important for Doug and I to play with pace and structure and allow the audience to go on this journey but also give them time to contemplate and to sit and process some of the things that are being discussed.
Spike Lee is the executive producer of this film. How did you get him involved?
Spike initially came on board because I was his student. Spike teaches a thesis-level course the third year of the grad film program, and he was my professor, and we were having a one-on-one meeting and he had read my pre-thesis report. It was going to be about what film I wanted to make, and he was shocked because he had seen me in the hallways for years, and he didn’t know anything about this robbery.
I tried to get him to sit down for an interview–he’s a cultural critic, and he has a lot to say. He denied that request, but he offered to executive produce and said that he wanted to help get this film out in the world. He didn’t know exactly what was going to be done because nothing had been shot yet, but he just believed that this film had a purpose. And sure enough, for the next six to seven years, he supported it and mentored me and gave notes and was just a huge advocate for this project and made sure that I never forgot the fact that it wasn’t complete until it was done.
Isn’t it crazy how long it takes to make a film?
If someone told me that this is going to take me seven years before I started it, I don’t think I would have started it. It just would’ve seemed so daunting of a task, but I felt like I went to grad school and then I received a post-graduate level education in doing a documentary. I’ve learned so much from being in the trenches, and my respect for documentary filmmakers is just through the roof.
How important was it for you to go to film school?
For me, it was life changing. In addition to the education I received, I met some incredible faculty members and incredible classmates. And what I’ve learned is that those are going to be people you are going to work with for the rest of your life, those classmates, and if I had not gotten into NYU, I wouldn’t have met these incredible people. So I owe a lot to that program. I have no complaints. I expected to be like a production house, and that’s essentially what it was.
What else have you been working on since you finished Evolution of a Criminal?
I just recently shot a short film, and I’m working on a fiction feature script entitled Year of Our Lord, and I’m hoping to be shooting that October or November of next year. It’s a psychological thriller about a young couple living in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn and they’re grappling with the fact that their seven-year-old kid may or may not be the second coming of Christ.
Wow. That’s a big thing to grapple with.
Your mom must be so proud of you.
It’s funny. She’s been smiling so much this whole year [since the film premiered at SXSW], and I know she’s proud. It was a tough situation when she found out about the robbery and me going to prison. So to go from such a really dark and down place to having a film out that’s being shown at festivals and being able to talk about what happened and not feel ashamed . . . This was an experience that no one could ever imagine would happen. It’s been quite surreal, and it’s been extremely humbling, and it just shows the power of resilience and faith and hope and possibility that’s within us human beings. It’s a beautiful thing.