Still from film’s reenactment of Darius Monroe and accomplice on the way to rob a bank

Still from film’s reenactment of Darius Monroe and accomplice on the way to rob a bank. Courtesy of Daniel Patterson

by Justin Stokes

From its premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW), Evolution of a Criminal comes to the Independent Lens family with a quiet but successful viewing record on the film festival circuit. Executive produced by Spike Lee, the documentary has director Darius Clark Monroe reconstructing a bank robbery he committed in his youth.

The thesis project for Monroe’s graduate studies at NYU, Evolution of a Criminal fastens concrete experience with the often-referenced abstracts of morality and psychology. Through recent footage, the documentary gets Monroe’s friends and family to share Monroe’s past as a smart, friendly student who was well remembered in high school. But as the knowledge of his family’s hardships becomes a burden, Monroe’s desire to stop being a victim to poverty prompts the action that forever changed him.

Almost too gentle at times, the film avoids any sort of heavy-handed political message by sticking strictly to the subject and his interviews. It’s an honest look at how one’s moral compass can slowly lose direction. It bridges cultural gaps, imports context into future dialogs about racial inequality, and offers a second chance for those paying debts to society.

On the technical merits of the film, the image quality can at times feel unpolished. One could easily be confused by seeing this and Spike Lee’s name as an executive producer, but viewers must keep in mind that this was a college project made by a first-time filmmaker. Any blemishes seen here only add to the story’s virtue, and the film becomes hard to imagine without this style of “video diary” filmmaking.

In a climate where many consider it dangerous to be black, Darius Clark Monroe stands as an ambassador.

Evolution of a Criminal makes its television debut January 12 at 9 p.m. on NPT. For information on the screening, please visit

Photograph by Christy Simmons

Photograph by Christy Simmons

Justin Stokes is the founder of the MTSU Film Guild, a student organization which functions as a production company for student filmmakers. He is a filmmaker, screenwriter, and social media manager.

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