A good film director never shoots a scene too long or too short. Every second can have a profound effect on the final product.
Few filmmakers know that better than Darius Clark Monroe. A scene lasting 90 seconds changed his life, and the lives of several others, in a way he can never take back. That’s the amount of time it took him and two accomplices to rob a Houston bank of $140,000 and terrorize a group of employees and customers.
Just 16 at the time, Monroe was caught, convicted and served time in an adult maximum security prison. After his release he went to college, became a filmmaker and tried to put his past behind him. But his crime and the impact it had on his victims ate away at him.
With the help of filmmaker Spike Lee the story of Monroe’s descent into and out of crime is now on film. The autobiographical feature length documentary “Evolution of a Criminal” premiered this year at South by Southwest, won several awards at other film festivals and will be shown on PBS in 2015. It’s also generating Oscar buzz.
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The film resulted in Monroe being named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film. Monroe and the film are coming to The Grand Cinema this weekend for the theater’s annual film festival based on the accolade (see accompanying story.)
In 1996, Monroe was the son of financially strapped parents living in a poor part of Houston. Both his mother and step-father were working full-time and part-time jobs but still couldn’t make ends meet.
“I could tell things were becoming more fraught,” Monroe said this week in a telephone interview from New York. “Our home was burglarized. My mom had to get a second job at Wendy’s. Things were just becoming more and more stressful.”
Monroe knew if he got a part-time job it wouldn’t have much of an impact. Then, while watching “America’s Most Wanted” one evening he heard about a local bank robber who had gotten away with his crime.
“The idea stuck inside my head. What if I could help out by doing a quick robbery? I didn’t understand at age 16 that the robbery would turn into a serious event. It just seemed like a simple fix at the time,” Monroe recalled.
Monroe didn’t tell his parents of his plans and recruited two friends. “It just didn’t feel like my family that was struggling. It felt like an entire community.”
During the robbery, an accomplice brandished a shotgun while Monroe grabbed the money. “I went to the back of the bank and emptied the safe,” Monroe recalled. No one was hurt — at least physically.
Monroe’s outlaw life didn’t last long.
“Rumors started to get around school. Eventually, I was arrested.”
Monroe served three years of a five year sentence.
Monroe knows things could have turned out much worse for him. “This is Texas. Getting a five year sentence for first degree aggravated robbery is very rare. There were tons of people I was in prison with who had far less serious crimes but had quadruple the time I had.”
Monroe started taking college courses while in prison and transferred to the University of Houston when he was released. In 2004, he enrolled in New York University's film program where Lee teaches.
At NYU, Monroe made several short films that received acclaim at film festivals and airtime on HBO and Cinemax.
By then, few people knew of Monroe’s criminal past — something he easily could have kept buried. But not from himself.
“It was always with me — that I had never truly come to terms with — I had harmed innocent people,” Monroe said. “Though I never got in trouble again, I always wondered what had happened to those people.”
After experiencing a panic attack at a bank and with the urging of a friend and his mother, he began to work on the film in 2007. Concerned about the film’s intimate nature he started and stopped it more than once. He finally finished it this year.
“Evolution of a Criminal” explores why Monroe committed the crime and the effects it had on him and his family. It has interviews with relatives, teachers and the prosecutor involved with the robbery. It also examines the impact his crime had on the other people in the bank.
“Though there was no physical harm the film explores what emotional trauma looks like,” Monroe said. “Once I went back and spoke to the people inside the bank that day, and you listen to them … they talk about the physical weight and what it’s like to be in fear of your life and to be facing their mortality.”
A key to understanding that, Monroe said, was a re-enactment of the robbery. “I felt like I had to see the robbery. I had to put myself in the place of the protagonist. It allowed me to strip all the fat away and make it personal and intimate.”
When Monroe set out to make the film he intended it to be about how a life ruined by a misdeed can be redeemed. “That’s definitely a part of the film but what became more important wasn’t who I am now but how did this kid from a loving home who had no intention of ever being a robber become a robber? What familial, systemic and societal influences pushes a kid to the brink of making a rash decision?”
The film is both an apology to his victims and an attempt to understand how he came to be in that bank 17 years ago.
“A lot of people who get involved with crime are not ‘criminals.’ They’re just in bad situations,” Monroe said. “They are working full-time jobs and still feel like the American dream is out of reach.”
“Evolution of a Criminal” will be shown at 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Wednesday.