Editor's note: His acclaimed new doc "Evolution of a Criminal" screens at the Los Angeles Film Festival today, Monday, June 16th, at 2pm, at Regal Cinema L.A. Live - Theater 12. Here's our recent interview with director Darius Clark Monroe on the feature documentary...
There’s a really special scene in Darius Clark Monroe’s autobiographical
feature documentary "Evolution of a Criminal" where his
stepfather explains how he fell in love with Clark’s mother right before they
share a kiss, smearing her red lipstick on both their lips. It is a pre-wedding
video shot on VHS. The footage is full of life, color, and of possibility. It
helps us enter the world of a loving family and the hard, economic trials that
they face; trials that a young Darius hopes to remedy by robbing a bank at age
16. These two things almost don’t add up- loving family and bank robbery- but
they do, and Monroe captures their evolution on film. Clark retraces the
events, moments, and social dynamics that led him to rob a bank, and explores
the lasting trauma it caused him, his family, and the people in the bank during
the robbery, as he takes responsibility for his actions, on camera.
Premiering at SXSW to packed theaters and executive-produced by Spike Lee, the film recently won the Reva and David Logan Grand Jury Award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina. I caught up with Clark for an in-depth conversation about the 7-year process of making the film, how it felt like a “second sentence,” and the “electric” premiere at SXSW.
Shadow & Act: When did you decide you wanted to make a film about this? What initially prompted you to begin retracing your actions in this way?
Darius Clark Monroe: I was in my third year at NYU and we were supposed to do a thesis film and I didn’t know what I wanted to do a thesis film on. I went to the bank one day and I was standing in line and looking out the window, when I saw some guy who looked like he was going to rob the bank. I had an anxiety attack and I thought that this person was bringing karma my way.
For some reason after my bank robbery, I always thought I was going to be involved in a robbery for a pay-back sort of thing and as it happened, the guy wasn’t a robber at all and that feeling I got freaked me out, and I thought for the first time about the situation inside the bank and even if those people weren’t harmed physically, I’m sure emotionally that experience was something that was traumatic, and I really wanted to apologize.
So I called up my friend Daniel Patterson who is also the DP of the movie, and told him I was thinking about doing this, and he was like this sounds like a movie we should do. I started to think about including my family, and in addition to the customers inside the bank, I would also include myself and really try to go back and figure out how I evolved and how this happened.
S&A: How did your family react when you told them about the idea of the story, especially your mother because she plays such an important part in the narrative?
DCM: You know, there wasn’t any resistance. I noticed some apprehension. People were definitely trying to figure out what I was going to do and ask. They knew I was coming for months, but I didn’t give them any questions, and for a lot of the interviews, I didn’t have anything written down.
S&A: Wow, that’s so interesting.
DCM: When I interviewed myself, I definitely had to write down what I was going to talk about but when talking to my family, it really was a conversation. We were having a conversation and it’s rare that you can sit down with people and ask them really detailed, intimate questions and my family knew that I was also on tape so it wasn’t like I was going to step out and have them do something that was really emotional and vulnerable. I was also going to be telling my part of the story and my experience.
S&A: I also wonder about your decision to make a documentary about this subject because I’ve seen your previous narrative work. Why did you choose to make a documentary, rather than a narrative film about this?
DCM: A documentary is really like a new-age version of hieroglyphics- there’s so much history and it’s like a time capsule, so I knew in addition to doing this documentary about this topic, to have my family history recorded was important. There were times when I was asking questions about family history that had nothing to do with the documentary. When I talked to my grandmother, I interviewed her for like six hours and for like two days and only in a few of those hours, did she talk about the documentary.
Growing up, I had no reference for the black experience, especially the black, southern working class experience- there’s none of that, especially from the perspective of somebody who is black.
S&A: That’s interesting because I feel like the visual style of your film has this nostalgic quality to it, especially with the addition of the home video footage. Can you talk about your conversations with DP Daniel Patterson and the look that you were going for with the film?
DCM: I shot on SD (standard definition) because at the time, it was 2007 and everybody was still shooting on the DVX 100 and then the 100B came out. After that, the lens adapters came out so we wanted to have them, and we had access to the DVX camera and for financial reasons, we shot SD and we got a Redrock Micro lens adapter. For the first portion of the documentary, I was funding it with student loans so that effected the budget, and we shot it on SD. It’s just different because it’s 2014 now and we’re taking SD and blowing it up to 1080 and we were already shooting with the lens adapter and it naturally created the nostalgia.
I didn’t know how to feel because I had that footage, I had the VHS footage of the wedding, and all top of that I have some interviews that were shot on 1080, and the reenactments are shot on RED Scarlet so the whole film is like the evolution of technology. The feel and the tone are consistent no matter what camera we’re using.
S&A: I could definitely see a passage of time, but everything was linked visually. I also wanted to know about those reenactments. Sometimes reenactments in documentaries get a bad rap because they can be disjointed or poorly performed, but I was really into your reenactments and the performances. What was the process of bringing them into the film and how was it locating your past motivations during the robbery to direct your actors?
DCM: At first I was struggling because I was looking for the young, chubby actor to play me. (laughs.) And then one day I was just talking to my friends and they were like, maybe you can get some people with similar skin tones, similar height, but the thing that’s important is that they nail the emotion and what it felt like and if they were able to give a good performance then people wouldn’t be so caught up in the fact that he’s not 35 pounds heavier like Darius is in real life.
The short film reenactments were literally a collaboration between people who have been working with me on short films, people I’ve been a fan of, and a lot of the actors worked with people I know, so it was this community of people coming together to get it done. I shipped most of the actors the documentary to watch so they got to see who the real people were, and the actress who played my mother made a stream recording of my mother’s interviews and would just listen to it and walk around, so they were really committed and I told them every time we met about the seriousness of the subject matter and to me, it was a short film that I could bridge the interviews together for the film because I felt that we were missing that.
When we shot that robbery, we all went in and we shot it a couple times and it was very emotional and the actors were getting into it. I would call action from the bathroom in the back so I couldn’t even see anything until I watched playback but I could hear it, and it was tough.
S&A: I did feel like I was watching this short film- it was two narratives linked together. There was a scene that showed the cold feet that you and your friends had prior to going to the bank until a Tupac song came on and helped get you guys riled up. I really connected to that part and it also made me think of some pre- bank robbery scenes in Set It Off and A Place Beyond The Pines, but then with your film you get this extended depth of perspective and reflection. I was wondering when you where conceiving of this film, were you aware of how it would reflect and give a more raw insight into pop culture tropes that people see?
DCM: No. (laughs). And you know what, it took me years to convince myself to do the reenactments. I was very much against them because I just knew that if the reenactments didn’t work it would be disrespectful to my family and disrespectful to the customers inside the bank, and it would make a mockery of the seriousness, so I knew I wanted to make something cinematic but I didn’t want to glamorize this.
I wanted it to look nice but I didn’t want it to be shiny with glitter on top and I didn’t realize until the edit that you could see those things and the teenage decision-making. A lot of the stuff I could see when it was coming together- the pop culture tropes came out, and I think some people in a weird way view it as a Robin Hood story and I don’t agree with that. It was a serious crime.
S&A: I appreciate how your film goes in-depth and you really see how you’re struggling with what happened, and talking to the people that were affected was really interesting.
DCM: My mom didn’t believe me when I told her I think this was harder than my incarceration. I was only locked up for three years and I’ve been doing this film for seven years, twice as long as my jail time. It felt like another sentence, and I couldn’t figure out when I was going to be done. The time just kept going on and I was writing other stuff, and this film was always in my head.
S&A: And we also see in the film- when you were apologizing and speaking to some of the people in the bank during the robbery. When and how did you decide you wanted to include those people, and how did it feel when people didn’t want to be involved, or didn’t want to accept your apology?
DCM: In terms of the edit, and how they were placed in the film, I knew that I wanted Pastor Ned to be a part of the whole thing, and I wanted the audience to experience it from both sides, and just the way it happened, he was the only person who said yes, and he carries it. He’s the voice of all the customers inside that bank. And we just so happened to have footage of the gentleman who did not want me on his property and for me, I understand exactly. When he told me get off his property, I respect that because I know if I had not gone through this, had not gotten in trouble, and was a grown man and someone had come to my door who had robbed my mother years ago, I don’t think I would be so forgiving, so I think one of the things the film talks about is forgiveness, and it’s difficult to have compassion especially when you hurt that person.
S&A: Those parts were fascinating and I was also holding my breath because we don’t know what they’re going to say.
DCM: It’s life happening right in front of you. We knew we were not going to have these cameras in people’s faces, so we had to go out the car window, I was mic’d up but there was no way we were going to have the cameras in anybody’s face while I was apologizing. I struggled with that because I didn’t want it be about the film but I knew I needed something, so I compromised.
S&A: I wondered if you kept this information guarded while making the film or during school and how? Did you experience any kind of catharsis or release by completing this film?
DCM: I wasn’t thinking every day that I’m a former bank robber. I was in film school, I was busy and I wasn’t thinking I have this secret. It wasn’t until I decided to do a documentary that I needed to say it out loud. Mind you, of course some of my classmates knew- some knew the first semester but as far as the faculty, the Dean and the Chair- did they need to know everything ? I didn't think so. It wasn’t like I was lying.
S&A: How did you start to work with Spike Lee on this project?
DCM: He’s the artistic director of my film program so in our third year, you don’t have to take Spike’s class but you should take Spike’s class. So, I sat down with Spike like I talked with everyone and I was telling him what it was and left it on his desk, and he told me to come back, talk to him and I came back for a second time and I asked Spike Lee to be interviewed for the documentary, and he immediately shut me down and said no thank you and I asked him to help produce and he said, I’ll do that and I was like, he doesn’t mean that. So I went back home and emailed him and he said yeah, and since then 2007 when we went down to Houston to shoot, Spike would call us, say how’s it going, and he would keep up with it.
Spike likes to get stuff done so for him, for me to take seven years, that’s too long. He did the Katrina doc in one year and he was like, what’s taking you so long? And I knew he was going to ask me about the doc, and I had to talk about it so I would say that Spike kept on for the seven years and helped us finish it.
S&A: What do you see for the life of this film? What was your experience at SXSW screening it, and where do you see it going- do you want to bring it to schools or the theatrical route?
DCM: I think it would do fine theatrically, I think it would do incredibly well on TV, incredibly well on Netflix. It’s an interesting film because I went to SXSW and the movie is about the black experience with universal themes. There definitely is a singular experience for the black, working class family living paycheck to paycheck and trying to survive and at SXSW, the audiences are mostly white and those people stayed and it was sold out. Those people had an experience. Those people came into the lobby and talked to me. It’s a film about black life, but it’s universal.
So, in addition to going those routes, I definitely want to screen the film in schools- in middle schools, high schools, and I definitely want to go to juvenile halls and prisons and I definitely want to let Prosecutors see it and Defense Attorneys to see it and just experience it. It would be difficult for me to go through this process and not be for juvenile justice. And, winning the Reva and David Logan Grand Jury Award at Full Frame really blew me away.
My SXSW premiere was electric. My grandmother said a prayer and Spike did a great intro, Ya’Ke Smith did a great Q&A and Pastor Ned came up, my father, my aunts, and my mother were there and Tre, one of the guys from the bank robbery was there and Spike had my grandmother bless the beginning before the screening, so I’m sure some of the industry people were like, What? My grandmother took the microphone and it was just overwhelming. I felt like I was on a drug.
S&A: What’s next for you?
DCM: I’ve been working on a script for three years and it won the Best Screenplay at Urbanworld Film Festival. I was at the Screenwriters Colony in Nantucket for it for a whole month, so I’m ready. It’s called Year of Our Lord and it’s about a black couple and their son who may or may not be the second coming of Christ. It’s a dramatic, R-rated thriller that delves into religion, media, parental relationships and all the stuff I’m obsessed with.
Read my review of "Evolution of a Criminal" here.
Nijla Mu'min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. Visit her website here.