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FNC 2014: ‘Evolution of a Criminal’

FNC 2014: ‘Evolution of a Criminal’

Evolution of a Criminaldownload (3)

Directed by Darius Clark Monroe
USA, 2014

Evolution of a Criminal is the first film from filmmaker Darius Clark Monroe. It was produced by esteemed filmmaker, Spike Lee, who happened to have been Monroe’s professor. The film won the Special Jury Prize at the Dallas International Film Festival. A recent graduate from the NYU Film School, Darius undergoes the project of documenting his own life, and what happened to him during his not so ordinary teenage years. In 1997, at 16 year old, Darius Clark Monroe robbed a bank and stole a huge amount of money along with two accomplices and friends. Following that, in what his prosecutors called a “lucky” sentence, he spent 5 years in prison to be released only at 22, thus spending among the most formative years of his life in jail.

The film is a blend of documentary and fiction and it mixes images from fictional reconstitutions of past events and interviews with various actors and actual family members. Darius talks to every witness that happened to know him during this period to gather the facts in order to piece together the whole story. He even speaks to someone who was at the bank during the robbery. His family, friends, the juvenile prosecutor, all give a different side of the story of a different element to get to know Darius, the filmmaker and redeemed “criminal”.

Evolution of a Criminal presents us with an interesting question of the role of the director. Here, not only the line between Darius the filmmaker and character in his film blurred but Darius is also very present in the movie, asking questions to interviewees with them addressing him, opposed to us, the audience. The director is there; he is documenting his own life, but this time behind a camera lens, where we can only hear his voice, and sometimes moving in front of the camera to be a subject of his own film. His position is unclear, whether he is in the position of a judge, or simply a witness to his own story, a researcher or even a historian. He speaks to all people who knew him, who know him now and members of his family.

His methodic reconstitution of the events brings back the human and the personal in a story that probably made the headlines at the time. The simplicity of the original headline, is overcome as we explore the nuances of the context. In the film, we learn about his friendship with the people who will be his accomplices in the robbery, we learn about the hard economic situation of his family —a common story for minorities in America-,the ways he initially found to cheat the system, and the build-up that led to the robbery.

The race issue is the core element of the film; it is latent but not mentioned once, only alluded to. Darius evolves in a poor middle-class black milieu in America which counts as an important element to understand the story, and play into the choices he made and the end result. There’s a glimpse of it when we learn that a few of his family members have been to prison. In some ways it reflects the statistics, with a 2013 report stating that 1 out of 3 African American men will face some sort of jail sentence in his life and that they make up 40% of the prison population in 2009. The only white interviewee, apart from his teachers at NYU, is his juvenile prosecutor who represents the law.

Even more telling is a particular passage with particularly beautiful colors and images. Darius, while in prison, has to work in a cotton field. Anyone with a little bit of historical knowledge can immediately relate this to the American history of slavery. At this particular moment, Darius is very self-conscious in his narration and realizes the symbolism of this situation, and the modern-day slavery that goes with the US prison-industrial system, as he describes himself as this tall, black guy, gathering cotton in a field in America.

The moral and main idea of the film seems to be the redemption of the main character. Darius repents; he manages to go to film school, knocks at people’s doors to ask for forgiveness and makes this movie to document the change. He moved on and will never do that again. What is not necessarily said is that even if he changes, the system is probably not going to change, and Black populations will continue to be among the ones who struggle the most, who are the most hit by economic crisis and who might have recourse to keep on surviving. Darius’ individual story and evolution cannot be understood without the broader socio-economic context that created this story, the US realities which can make us reconsider the end message of redemption and positive individual change.

-Anne-Myriam Abdelhak