(Photo courtesy of IMDB)
Houston native, Darius Clark Monroe, 33, gives a retrospective look into what life was like for him at 16-years-old. In his first documentary, Evolution of a Criminal, Monroe conveys that a young high school student’s life wasn’t all about sports and girls. Unfortunately, it was filled with poverty and despair, which lead him and two other friends to rob a Stafford bank in 1997. In the film, Monroe introduces family members, teachers and friends, who played a role in the bank robbery, to retrieve logical solutions on why a smart and loving child with a promising future paid the time for the crime. Not only does he capture the emotional reflections from himself, family members and friends but the film incorporates the views from the patrons who were inside of the bank the day of the robbery. Even with the heartache and humiliation, Monroe gained courage from his mistake and looked into a brighter future that did not bear being dehumanized by picking cotton while serving time, but it included graduating from the University of Houston and New York University Graduate Film Program. Monroe flipped his poverty infested childhood into premiering his Spike Lee executive produced debut documentary at the Los Angeles Film Festival, BAM Cinema Fest, SXSW Film Festival and may others. With the plethora of awards won for this film, there is no doubt that Evolution of a Criminal is floating around the film circuit for Oscar nominations. The critically acclaimed breakout filmmaker spoke with Empower Magazine after his Houston film premiere on why it is important to continue your dreams and aspirations even if you have been set back by irrevocable mistakes.
Empower Magazine: We know that you were involved in a bank robbery at the age of 16, but how did this film come about?
Darius Clark Monroe: Back in 2007, I was standing in a bank in New York City and I thought I saw someone that looked like they were going to attempt a robbery and I had a panic attack. Fortunately, the bank wasn’t robbed but that moment made me think and reflect back to when I was involved in a bank robbery. It instantly make me think about the people that were in the bank the day of the robbery. I had never apologized to them and it made me want to seek them out. I spoke to my mother and all of my family members because we needed to sit down and explore how this happened in the first place.
EM: You titled the film Evolution of a Criminal. How have you evolved from being classified as a criminal, which is hard to run away from, to being an award winning filmmaker?
DCM: Well, you know for me the title is a play on words, because when you think about the title no one is born a criminal. No one really has the intent to be a criminal, people are put in really bad and unfortunate situations and people end up making bad choices sometimes. I was always someone who was motivated and had dreams and this situation happened and it derailed me from fulfilling my destiny.
EM: After viewing the film we can take from the interviews that you were a very bright child, so why didn’t you decide to work two jobs to get extra money for the family versus robbing a bank?
DCM: One, I was 16. So I wasn’t trying to think it all through, and I had a job, my mom had a full time job, my step-father had a full time job and a part time job. So it’s like all of these people are working and yet it still didn’t feel like anything was happening, and it wasn’t just my parents. It was the neighbors, my extended family and you could just tell that the whole area was struggling. There were no thriving communities in my area, no economic resources available, and these were people living paycheck to paycheck and sustaining with the bare minimum and I just became frustrated with that. I wasn’t thinking about getting a second job and I knew that things were looking down and I needed to do something and I needed to do something soon.
EM: Whose idea was it? And how long were you sitting on the idea before you all executed the plan?
DCM: Initially the idea was mine. After watching an episode of America’s Most Wanted, which featured a guy who had robbed a bank a few times, that sort of inspired me. Then I told, Trei, Pierre and a few others about this idea. My home was burglarized in October 1996. I got the idea around November 1996, and in January 1997 the robbery came about.
EM: During your three year stint of the five year bid were there any plans on filmmaking for the future in prison? How did you stay focused?
DCM: Filmmaking was one of my dreams in prison, but I was just excited to go to college. I started college when I was in prison, and by the time I got out I was a already a junior. (In prison) I was in college with a lot of guys my age or older who were doing some time who also had goals and dreams and wanted to do things. We were hype to go to school. We were excited for each lesson to begin, and that really helped us gain mental stability in that place. So when I got out one of the biggest things I wanted to do immediately was to get back in that educational environment and to continue what I was doing in prison but now on the other side of the wall and hopefully apply into a graduate film program and get excepted.
EM: Is it safe to say that the film is a plea for forgiveness to the people in the bank that day and your family?
DCM: I wouldn’t say a plea for forgiveness, but it’s just the facts. To me the film is about a family who went through those situations, and the truth is we all go through situations and we all make mistakes and have regrets. This story just happens to be about crime and there are things that we have all struggled with as young people and now we really don’t want it to define us for the rest of our lives. This is just hopefully a film that can be used as a catalyst for change and we can receive it through forgiveness. NYU didn’t stereotype me even after they found out what my crime was. They allowed me to work full time and work on this project. There are so many people who were resilient enough to know that this guy isn’t his mistake and he deserves another chance if not three chances, and that is what I hope people take away from the film.
EM: Have you forgiven yourself?
DCM: Oh yeah, (laughs), Oh yes, I have. I think I was in the process of forgiving myself when I started the film, but the whole seven year process and getting to share the film with others have been really transforming to me. So I am not really holding on to any pains of what happened since I was 16, that was half a lifetime ago for me.
EM: Tell me what you want others to take away from this film?
DCM: You have got to be an active participant in your life and your future. Even with familiar influences, systemic influences, even under the umbrella of being oppressed and being black and being stuck in poverty, you still have to thrive. You still have to challenge yourself and grow, the only person that can do it is you, there isn’t going to be anyone else who can do it but you. Once you make your choice to thrive, there will be so many people there to lift you up and help you when you need to lean on them to make it happen. You have to be the engine in your own life.
EM: So what can we look forward to next from you?
DCM: I am working on a film titled Year of Our Lord and it’s about a young couple who are baffled about the fact that their seven-year-old son is possibly the second coming of Christ. I was involved in Sundance Screenwriters Intensive, and we had a couple of screenwriters competitions, but after four or five years of work-shopping the script I think it’s time to take it to another level. So we will be moving it to pre-production around this time next year.
Evolution of a Criminal’s last showing in Houston is today at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema at Vintage Park. For further showings, visit Evolution of a Criminal’s facebook page at www.facebook.com/evolutionofacriminal.