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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.