Filmmaker Darius Clark Monroe talks about his debut doc Evolution of a Criminal, the school to prison pipeline, and why no one ever asks what it’s like for white people to be white filmmakers.
Evolution of a Criminal is your debut film. What motivated you to revisit this moment in your past and turn it into a documentary?
It was one of those turning points in my life – getting in trouble and going to prison – that has always stayed with me. I never thought I’d make a film about this topic, the whole incident, until many years later after getting released from prison and going to college and being in my third year at NYU film school. I was standing at a bank in New York City, and I thought the bank was going to be robbed. There was someone outside the bank, and I was in line when I actually had a full-on panic attack. Fortunately the robbery did not happen, but just that whole feeling of dread and doom and remembering what happened in the years prior made me reflect back and think about the people who were inside the bank and the fact that they had never received a proper apology. So many years had gone by, I just felt like it was time. I became more interested in exploring what had happened in the first place, not just the apology, but how did this kid get involved in the system, how did this crime come about and what influences, systemic, familial, behavioral, pushed me to make that choice?
What are your thoughts on the ongoing criminalization of Black men through the school to prison pipeline?
I mean, you know, it is so dangerous. A lot of the school to prison pipeline is tied up in race and class. And so, in terms of trying to tackle it, it is very difficult. Right now the whole country, even the whole world, is talking about a difference of religions, backgrounds, class, ethnicities. And when you have a situation like you have here in this country, where just by the sheer fact that if you are white, your housing property is of higher value, and that means your taxes are higher, and your schools get more funding, you just create this horrible cycle of marginalizing those that aren’t of the dominant culture. In terms of how to fix that, it’s really tricky. I mean, one solution is that we should not tie anything that has to do with education and schools to property taxes, because we know at the outset that there is a correlation here between your race and how much funding you’re going to get. That system should be eliminated, because every school, every student, every child should have an equal opportunity without feeling like they are going to be treated as prey or viewed as a predator in a school. So that is one of the big things, the fact that schools are tied to property taxes, that I feel has to be changed, because it just creates an unfair balance. Also, there are statistics of who is being suspended, of who is getting sent home, of who is being disciplined, and nine times out of ten you have a young black or brown boy or girl being suspended at a much higher rate than white students who have committed the same acts. There is so much bias that goes into this, and a lot of it is being presented as behavioral bias or cultural bias, but it’s just racism and racist politics. We spend a lot of time talking about the symptoms, how we are going to fix things, and we never look to the source of the problem. And that’s a problem I still have yet to figure out how to fix: the denial that the source exists.
How do you feel like your film disrupts and/or reinforces stereotypes about Black men in America?
As a society, when we think of Black boys and men, we’ve been brainwashed to believe that those descriptions are synonymous with threat and danger. The film humanizes not just me, but everyone in the film. So many lives were impacted by this robbery. And these aren’t lives that easily fit inside a pie chart or statistic. These are real people, people who are hurting, who are going through it, who are flawed like everyone. We all make mistakes. And we’ve all made decisions that we regret. We hope that people won’t vilify us for life because of a bad choice. When you do get involved, or swept into the criminal justice system and you do happen to be Black and male, it is very difficult to shake that stigma of being a criminal for life, because that’s how you’re being viewed. Even if you go all the way to NYU, as show in my film the district attorney will say “come back in 50 years and then we’ll see,” so that stigma holds firm. It’s unshakeable. This film strives to push beyond a trope or falsehood, subverting the audiences’ expectation at every turn, hoping humanity shines through. I often wonder, what is a reasonable and realistic amount of time for someone to “turn themselves around” and be afforded a new opportunity? When do we forgive and what does forgiveness really look like?
I feel like your film does an incredible job of balancing the structural conditions as well as individual choices that led to your robbery. How did you go about balancing the two?
It was definitely difficult to accomplish. I feel like they were both needed, because I understand my personal responsibility. I knew at the time, at 16 years old, that I was not raised in a family that told me to go out and commit this crime. Even though my family was hurting, that wasn’t my upbringing. But I knew the struggle that my immediate family and extended family had been facing, a struggle that we’ve been going through for centuries due to systemic racism, an endless cycle of poverty and mass incarceration. There are a lot of people in my family who have interacted with the criminal justice system. I had to bring both of those issues to a head, to speak about them in a way that was honest and true, that didn’t feel like we were making excuses, because I definitely say in the film that I have regrets about the robbery. You never hear big banking institutions declare that they have regrets for what they have done to millions of people, millions of hard working folks, who trusted them with their funds. Even though I didn’t want it to become a film where it was me against this big bank or this system, the system does touch every single thing, and my family, a Black family, has definitely been abused repeatedly by a system that is set up to oppress and deny opportunities to people who look like me.
This documentary is really a journey of redemption. Did it bring you any peace or closure?
I definitely feel a sense of closure. Absolutely. After seven years in the making, I’m extremely proud of the fact that I was able to complete this film. That brings me some closure. Emotionally, it’s still very difficult to move on without remembering what I’ve been through and what others lived through due to my actions. I hate that this story is still topical. This happened to me in 1997 and here we are in 2015 debating the same issues as if no time has passed. Mass incarceration is still very much a problem in this country. The criminalization of Black youth, poverty, class, race, racism…all of these issues are in the headlines every single day.
We don’t see or really hear about your actual time spent in prison. Why did you choose to exclude this from the film? Did you feel like prison functioned as a rehabilitation center or not?
The reason I don’t include a lot of it is because the film isn’t about my incarceration. It would have been too much. I tried to pick the most powerful elements and aspects of my incarceration in the film, so that people could get a true understanding of what prison is. In terms of sharing more about my experience, you know, I don’t think the prison system was set up to rehabilitate. Fortunately, there was a college educational system in my unit, which provided an opportunity for me to continue going to school via a youth offender program (which was for any offenders under 21 who had less than five years to go home). In many prisons across the country, college youth offender programs have been completely wiped away, but I truly benefited from that program. I took numerous courses, so many that I was almost a junior by the time I was released. Again, this wasn’t because the prison or TDCJ was rooting for me to succeed, it was the educators in the prisons who had a vested interest in their students. They believed that the recidivism rate, the rate of committing more crimes and getting in trouble again, greatly decreased if your education increased. A lot of programs have been removed today because taxpayers feel like, oh you give them too much help, they committed a crime, you shouldn’t be using taxpayer money to fund their education. But people forget that a lot of these families (with family members in prison) are taxpaying individuals, and a lot of their funds are used to build prisons. Why not allocate funds for prison education?
What was it like working with Spike Lee as your Executive Producer?
He was my thesis professor at NYU. While enrolled in his class, we had to pitch what we wanted to do for our thesis films. Evolution of a Criminal was my thesis film choice. Spike and I had a meeting where I told him about the story and how I planned on approaching the film. After the second or third meeting, Spike decided that he wanted to executive produce the film. This was before I had any support, before anyone came onboard. This was strictly based on his reading of my treatment and our conversations. Once we were down in Houston filming, Spike would call and check up on the crew and see how the shoot was going, ask about my family, the victims, etc. For six and a half years, Spike would call and email and text and see what was going on with the project. He couldn’t understand why it was taking so long, but he continued to push me to get it completed. Once it was time for him to see a cut and give notes, he was truly helpful. He also challenged me to stand up for parts of the film that I loved, and not feel forced to change them due to the fact that a note was coming from Spike Lee. I was working on this material for many years and growing as a storyteller, so there were moments where we bumped heads, and there were moments where he also gave a note that was genius and spot on. It was a great experience.
Do you feel like you are in the company of many other Black filmmakers? Do you think it is relevant to ask filmmakers to reflect on their race and how that shapes their art?
In the doc community, it’s not like there’s been a whole lot of Black filmmakers. I’ve definitely met some, but it’s enough to count on one hand or two at the most. Most of the other documentary filmmakers I’ve met are white. And it is jarring because if you look at the variety of documentaries being shown on the festival circuit the subjects and topics are far and wide, so many different cultures, so many different backgrounds and stories. Yet, they’re all being viewed through one very specific experience, which is and has always been dangerous. Documentaries should be a full reflection of our society. It’s odd and damaging when 90 percent of the filmmaking comes from white, mostly American/European filmmakers, who feel very comfortable dictating the stories of myriad cultures through their lens. With regard to filmmaking and storytelling and editing, it’s powerful who is in front of the camera, but who’s behind the camera is just as powerful if not more so. Who’s in the edit room? Who’s making choices? Who’s shaping this experience? So when people ask me what is it like being Black in the doc circuit, I don’t mind telling them the truth. I wrote about it in an article for Documentary Magazine called “Documenting While Black.” My problem is that it is rare that you ever hear white people asking white people what it’s like being a white person dictating these different cultures. What is it like stepping behind the camera, not knowing anything about this world, but feeling you have the tools to distill and process someone else’s culture in under 100 minutes? Those are the questions I never hear asked on any panel, on any circuit (doc or narrative), where the rooms are filled with white people. I would love to hear more filmmakers talk about the power and privilege of being white, being able to travel the world, camera in tow, telling stories of the “other” without any of those people being a part of the film crew or producing crew or editing crew.
What is a question that you have not been asked that you feel like has been missing from the conversation about your film?
People will bring up the reenactments and ask what is it like making a documentary with reenactments. Some members of the documentary community aren’t fans of reenactments, which is cool. But no one really asks what it’s like to be the subject of a documentary, to direct yourself and a version of yourself while directing a memory. I feel like a lot of people are blinded by reenactments and forget that this is not just a typical reenactment. This is someone recreating a memory and re-experiencing it again through cinema.
What was that process like?
Directing was just as emotional as doing the interviews, if not more emotional. Throughout the entire experience, I had to be really vulnerable and open to the crew, because there was really no way to hide how painful it was to go back on this journey. But shooting those reenactments was very challenging. It was a literal déjà vu experience. I was feeling exactly how I felt the day I was arrested. I was feeling exactly the same way I felt the day of the robbery. Having to be composed enough as a filmmaker to direct the crew and orchestrate the shoot while being an emotional wreck was very trying. But it felt like therapy. It felt like I was walking through a dream and a nightmare.
What can we look forward to seeing from you next?
I just finished a short fiction film entitled Dirt, which will be on the festival circuit later this year. And I’m hoping to begin production on a feature film entitled Year of Our Lord, which is the story of a young couple living in Brooklyn, grappling with the fact that their seven-year-old son is possibly the second coming of Christ. It’s a contemporary psychological thriller.