Vital, thoughtful, and deeply personal, first-timer Darius Clark Monroe’s autobiographical doc stands as a testament to the power of movies to stir empathy. At age 16, honor-student Monroe had grown sick of seeing his hardworking family struggle to keep up with its bills. He had dabbled in employee-theft at the Venture store where he worked after school. Next, restless and foolhardy, he set his criminal sights higher, corralling a couple of friends and busting into a Stafford, Texas, Bank of America. Monroe wore a skeleton mask, one accomplice wielded a sawed-off shotgun, and a couple hours later Monroe’s mother found a shoebox on her bed filled with thirty grand.
Monroe’s film is an inquiry into who he was becoming — and who he became during a five-year prison sentence. He stages crisp reenactments of the crime, well shot by rookie director of photography Daniel Patterson, but what’s most arresting here are his interviews with family members and his two accomplices. They speak into the camera, but they’re all talking to Monroe, addressing him as “you,” an unusual intimacy for a documentary: The effect is part home movie, part family therapy, and part painful inquiry. His mother cries, talking about his sentencing, but she also admits that in the days before the cops came around she couldn’t quite bring herself to report the stolen money. There were those bills to pay, after all.
An uncommonly persuasive fellow, Monroe arranges interviews with bystanders who were in the bank that day and an assistant D.A. who worked his case. Monroe asks forgiveness in these scenes, but he’s after more than catharsis: Like Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence, in which the filmmaker invites a cop he once stabbed at a protest to reenact the incident two decades later, Evolution of a Criminal is a heartening examination of what its central crime meant in the lives of all involved. Even the staged footage reenacting the crime is charged with meaning: Here’s a filmmaker re-creating the way he, as a kid, made his biggest mistake trying to re-create movie scenes in real life.
There’s a further complicating element, a fascinating one: a sense that Monroe, an African American from the Houston area, is demonstrating that he turned out to be something different from what that white D.A. might have expected. (She tells him that she’ll believe he’s reformed when he’s made it to 50 without backsliding into crime.)
The film started as a project of Monroe’s at NYU’s film school. It might seem indulgent for him to have shot interviews with his professors, expressing their surprise at learning of his criminal history, but such moments illuminate one of the film’s central truths: Americans prefer not to look at the why of crime, just the fact of it, and how far would a broke black kid from Texas make it if he mentioned a prison term in his application letters? The film is a triumph, as moving as it is courageous.