In 1997 sixteen-year-old Darius Clark Monroe and two accomplices robbed a bank in southwest Houston. An honor student with an after-school job, Monroe stunned his parents by leaving a shoebox full of cash on their bed, his attempt to solve the financial problems that had dogged his family for most of his life. After serving three years in prison, Monroe went to the University of Houston and then to New York University’s prestigious film program. On January 12 the PBS program Independent Lens will air his first feature-length film, Evolution of a Criminal, a documentary about the robbery and its aftermath, which was executive-produced by Spike Lee. 

Nate Blakeslee: I think a lot of film students at NYU, if they had a story like this in their back pocket, would say, “I’m going to do that first.” But you waited years to do this project. Why?

Darius Clark Monroe: When I was released from prison, I wanted to get as far away from this story as possible. That was a chapter of my life I wasn’t really proud of. Actually, this film came about because I hada panic attack inside a bank in New York. I started to freak out, thinking that the bank was going to get robbed. I’d always thought that I would be involved in a robbery again, but as a victim. 

NB: In the film, you got your NYU professors to discuss their reactions when they finally learned, after you had graduated, that you were working on a film about your having robbed a bank as a teenager.

DCM: They didn’t know my history, but they had come to know me quite well by the time we conducted that interview. I wanted them to be honest about the fact that [their reaction was] “You probably wouldn’t have received this full scholarship or this opportunity had we known.” Even at progressive NYU, that stigma holds true, and it’s just really hard to shake it. 

NB: Were the interviews with your mother the first time the two of you had really discussed what happened? 

DCM: Absolutely. That was our first time sitting down, and she just started to talk about her experience of me being in prison. And I realized, “Wow, I’ve been out for almost a decade and I’ve never heard you say any of this.” It almost felt like therapy, and the camera was just in the room. 

NB: You introduced your friends Trei and Pierre without telling us at first that they were your accomplices in the robbery. In the same way, you waited until about halfway through the film to tell us that several of your family members had been to prison too.

DCM: One big thing for me was to subvert expectations, to play uponthe stereotypes of what we’ve come to understand about who and what a criminal is and to just pull the rug out from under you. You get to know these people, you trust them, you listen to them. Then you find out, “Oh, these are people who have been through the prison system. They’re actually speaking from experience.” 

NB: One of the most revealing moments in the film is when your mom describes finding the money on her bed and recalls that she immediately had two conflicting thoughts: essentially, “Oh my God, what did he do?” and “Now I can pay some bills.” It’s an amazingly honest thing to say on camera. 

DCM: I’ve been screening this film across the country, and some people have been completely turned off by that—they’re disgusted. But I’m like, “What world do you live in?” I just wanted to show that as humans, we are complicated. People think, “Oh, I would’ve picked up the phone and called the police.” That’s not how life works. You have to understand the stress and struggle of being broke all the time. You have this money in front of you and you’re conflicted. I commend someone who would have turned that money over to the police. But that just wasn’t the choice she made at the time.

NB: There is something unusual about the degree to which you, as a teenager, were obsessed with trying to solve your family’s problems. 

DCM: Growing up, even if my mom never had one conversation with me about money, I could see from my environment and my surroundings that things were hard. No matter how many times we tried to move up to a better environment, the chaos—this constant struggle—would follow us. And violence. And crime. As a kid, you really do feel powerless. You feel like, “Okay, there’s nothing I can do, and yet I’m seeing these people hurt.”

NB: I imagine that some viewers, especially people who are not from the South, will be struck by how many times God is mentioned in the film, particularly by the people who were in the bank that day.

DCM: People have asked me repeatedly if I prompted these people to talk about God. I said, “No, this is the culture. This is real.” I’m sure if I had conducted inter-views with people who lived in New York, it would’ve been very different. But in Texas, when we’re talking about redemption and forgiveness, for a lot of people it is steeped in their belief in God—whether they forgive you or not. One gentleman says, “I can forgive you in Christ,” but essentially he was like, “Get off my property.”

NB: What does it mean to you to have Spike Lee associated with your project?

DCM: It’s been a dream. The whole time we were shooting, Spike would call me at least once a week to see how it was going. And then, for the next seven years, he hunted me down and challenged me to finish the film. He just couldn’t understand what was taking me so long. “Hey, this is not something you can just throw away,” he’d say. “You should really finish it and get it out into the world.” 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.