In the fall of 2006, Darius Clark Monroe, a third-year graduate film student at NYU, was waiting in line at a Bank of America in Times Square when a wave of panic suddenly washed over him. He froze. His heart pounded and he was unable to breathe, convinced that the bank was about to be robbed. The flash of fear was over within seconds, but that was enough time to convince him that the past—his past—wasn’t going away. Monroe, unbeknownst to his professors and classmates, had robbed a bank a decade earlier with some high school friends. The crime was committed at a branch of Bank of America near Stafford, where he grew up, and he served three years in prison for it.
“Even though I was feeling positive about the direction my life was going, there was just something that didn’t sit well,” Monroe recently told me over breakfast at Stafford’s Avalon Diner. Now 34, he was in town for a short visit with his family before heading back to Brooklyn, where he now lives. “I had never apologized to the people in the bank, so I decided to track them down. And since I was at NYU at the time, it only made sense that I would try to film it.”
Evolution of a Criminal airs January 12 at 9 p.m. on Houston Public Media, Channel 8.
The resulting documentary, Evolution of a Criminal, which counts Spike Lee among its executive producers, premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival last year to stellar reviews, and airs this month nationally on PBS. It tells the story of a 16-year-old honors student who, by day, took AP classes and served on the student council at Willowridge High School, but by night was coming under increasing pressure to help out with his family’s dire financial situation. “I always thought we were a middle class family,” Monroe said. “It didn’t dawn on me until I was 14 or 15 that we did not have the money. We were not starving, we were not on welfare, but we were struggling paycheck to paycheck.”
At the beginning of his junior year, Monroe’s house was robbed—a major setback for a family already facing mounting bills—so he decided to steal a VCR from the electronics store where he worked to replace it. And he set his sights higher after seeing an episode of America’s Most Wanted that made bank robbery look easy, at least to Monroe. He and two friends armed themselves with unloaded shotguns and robbed the Bank of America of about $140,000.
A few days later, police arrived at Willowridge High and arrested Monroe in front of his classmates after an eyewitness identified him and his accomplices. Monroe was sentenced to five years at the Ferguson Unit, a state prison northwest of Huntsville, where he was put to work picking cotton, a job that made him feel like he was living on an antebellum plantation. (He ended up serving three years.) When he wasn’t in the fields, Monroe found time to work toward his GED and focus on his writing—a longtime hobby that he began to take seriously. He wrote several short stories at Ferguson and dreamed of getting them made into films.
One day, while reading USA Today in the prison break room, he noticed a story ranking the top film programs in the country. “I’ll never forget it—it listed USC, NYU, UCLA. NYU had just a cast of characters: Spike Lee, [Martin] Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch. It seemed like people who were on the edge a little bit, who weren’t cookie-cutter. I was like, this is a place I need to be. I’m going to do whatever I have to do to make sure my grades are where they need to be to get into an institution of that caliber.”
Thanks to college courses he took at Sam Houston State while in prison, Monroe was accepted as a transfer student by the University of Houston before he was even released. There, he enrolled in a screenwriting course taught by former Houston Post film critic (and occasional Houstonia contributor) Joe Leydon. “He was really one of the best students I’ve ever had,” Leydon said. “If you would have told me that this kid had a prison record, that he went into a bank and made an unauthorized withdrawal,” he joked, “I would have asked what ganja you were smoking.”
NYU’s grad school application only asked whether he’d been convicted of a drug felony (he hadn’t), and so Monroe decided not to disclose his criminal history—until, that is, he actually went to NYU and decided to make a film about it. When he told his story to his professors there, they were as incredulous as Leydon. Soon, Spike Lee, who taught Monroe’s senior thesis class, agreed to be an executive producer on the film.
Monroe set up interviews with his family members, accomplices, and even the district attorney who prosecuted him. He spent six months tracking down the bank tellers and others he’d traumatized during the robbery. “I was trying my best to instantly say that I was here to apologize, that this was not some mission to seek vengeance or whatever,” he said. “Those were the interviews I was most afraid of, because I didn’t know what they were going to say, and I was worried about my safety. I was just hoping and praying that the universe would work with me.”
Some of the victims forgave him. Some ordered him off their property. One of the bank customers, now a church pastor, agreed to a sit-down interview in which he described his terror during the robbery. In the film, footage of the interviews is juxtaposed with haunting, David Fincher–esque reenactments of the crime.
During the seven years it took Monroe to complete Evolution of a Criminal, Lee frequently grew impatient. “He was like, ‘Is this the Holocaust? Is this 9/11? What’s taking so long?’ I’m like, ‘Spike, I need time to process this!’” When the film was finally finished, Lee himself attended the documentary’s world premiere at SXSW. At a Q&A after the screening, an audience member asked him how he had reacted when Monroe told him about his past. Lee described it thusly: "You robbed a bank! How the f--- did you get into NYU?"