“Evolution of a Criminal” is a documentary and a provocation, a movie and a bitter truth to swallow. First-time filmmaker Darius Clark Monroe returns to the scene of a crime he committed ten years ago in this docu-confession that subtly raises questions about how harsh economic realities in certain pockets of the US turn young people into lawbreakers.
Monroe not only has an urgent story he needs to tell, involving a bank robbery he committed with two friends at the age of 16, he’s also an exceptionally gifted filmmaker who finds novel ways to recreate, and evoke, his past mistakes. “Evolution” layers interviews alongside Monroe’s door-to-door catharsis quest, or something like it, as he tracks down the people affected by the robbery to ask for forgiveness. And, in effect, to put a rather banal face on what the law deemed a hideous crime.
Monroe’s family—including a loving mother, doting grandmother and strong-headed stepdad—was already struggling financially when home invaders ransacked their house, painting 16-year-old Monroe into the corner of wanting to help his broke parents.
His startling interviews with family members are the blood and the soul of the movie. It takes a moment to realize they’re talking to Monroe, who’s not only directing these testimonies, but asking the questions, too.
Monroe is now of course out of prison and a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He’s an excitingly talented filmmaker who is not distracted by the easy cliches that could’ve been used to tell this story. There are no scary prison tales—though Monroe spent several years there—nor is there grandiose finger-wagging at municipal neglect and institutional racism. Those issues always loom, but never overshadow the film’s human focus.
“Evolution of a Criminal” took Monroe seven years to make and it’s an astonishing feat of storytelling that he was able to whittle 85 hours of footage down to 83 compact minutes. It would be an injustice not to see it on the Oscar doc shortlist this year. Now in theaters via The Film Collaborative.