However muddled the line between reality and fiction stands in any documentary, an extra pause for skepticism occurs when the filmmaker steps in front of the camera. As Michael Moore or Alex Gibney saunter into frame, there’s the question of exactly why they’re there and what’s been left out of the final cut. Darius Clarke Monroe’s “Evolution of a Criminal” presents an especially complicated form of that concern: the director casts a younger version of himself, stages a stylized depiction of a bank robbery that he and two others pulled while in high school, and then leaves the camera recording while he seeks forgiveness, ten years later, from those whose lives he altered forever.
It’s because of the central crime that ‘Evolution’ rears back from narcissism or any sort of agenda. Aged 16 and living with his family in the lower class outskirts of Houston, Texas, Monroe ditched his high school class to drive off with two classmates. Together they successfully robbed a bank; soon after though, two of them—including Monroe—were caught, tried as adults, and sent to prison. The third inexplicably went free, and that fact becomes a source of tension as Monroe interviews his former accomplices, as well as his family and victims of the robbery itself.
These passages intersect, usually with a sit-down interview narrating a stylized reenactment of the robbery or its lead-up; Monroe then brings a camera with him as he locates those locals who were there on the day, some of whom aren’t too thrilled to see him again, and processes the event. Formally, the doc is a prime example of subject matter triumphing over style. The reenactments are frankly a bit hokey, and his sit-down interviews suffer from odd framing or worse, an uneven, jarringly lit set-up. But the words being said are key—from Darius’ family members, the former case prosecutor, the robbery victims—and the shared account that they construct together is often captivating.
The capsule case studies from reporters and filmmakers like David Simon or Eugene Jarecki of imprisoned black Americans factor in here on a more intimate scale, as it’s quite shocking for both Darius and the audience to chart the patterns of poverty, drug use, offenses and repeat offenses in his family. The film doesn’t look so much at the journey towards prison in these cases, but rather the day-to-day management and guilt around being a felon afterwards. That said, one of the most powerful scenes in the film comes when Darius, who grew more aware of his parents’ crippling poverty until he decided to try and help, interviews his mother, in turn realizing the impact of her own financial comments while raising her son.
The entire film could start to feel like a feature-length justification, but Darius manages to sidestep that path by never letting himself off the hook. He lets a pastor who was present at the time of the robbery describe the horror that he felt as Darius tore through the bank; aside from a few out-of-place shots of Darius walking solo like a “20/20” special, he locks onto the reactions of others to fully convey the weight of his actions.
One point where Darius’ reaction would’ve been welcome is late in the film, when the prosecutor Stacey L. Brownlee brings up a point relating to the director’s journey from felon to NYU grad—that a repeat offense is always a potential outcome, but she hopes that this documentary is genuine in its aims. It gives the documentary a tragic undercurrent on which to leave, but then that question is what drove Monroe towards this enthralling film and away from the volatile history that precedes him. [B]