October 6, 2014

Documenting While Black: The Making of 'Evolution of a Criminal'

On the surface, Evolution of a Criminal  tells the story of a young man's decision to rob a bank in order to save his family from a cycle of debilitating poverty. Underneath this seemingly straightforward tale, one discovers the hidden architecture of race, class and privilege that shapes our society. The story behind the making of this first-person, personal narrative is as profound as the film itself. 

Darius Clark Monroe, along with two accomplices, robbed a bank while he was in high school, and they almost got away with it. While in prison, Monroe finished high school, and got quite a bit of college under his belt. After his release, he finished up his course work at college in his native Houston. Then, without using his "tale of redemption" to gild his graduate school applications, he was accepted into NYU's prestigious film school. It was only several years into his studies that he revealed his dark history to fellow students and staff. Monroe's perspectives on class and privilege, given his having lived on many different levels of the class scale, lend him a wholly unique lens through which to examine these realities. The film, like most great narratives, raises many more questions than it answers. Thankfully, we get the opportunity to ask him some of those questions here.

Courtesy of Darius Clark Monroe

When was the first time you remember becoming acutely aware of race and class? Maybe it wasn't one lightning-bolt moment, but instead a slow building of awareness.

Darius Clark Monroe: Like most black people in this country, I grew up in a predominately black neighborhood. At the grocery store, not only were all of the shoppers black, but the cashiers, baggers and managers were all black. On the weekends, my grandmother would take my cousins and me to the laundromat. Although owned by a Chinese family—another common occurrence in the black community—everyone washing, drying and folding their clothes was black. The church was black. The playground was black. The Post Office, YMCA, salons and barbershops—all black.  

I had no true understanding of race and class until elementary school. Growing up, we lived in the Carter Plaza Apartments on the Southeast side of Houston. Both of my parents worked full-time at jobs that were located on opposite sides of the city, far from our apartment. Instead of attending an elementary school that I was zoned to, my mom decided to enroll me into kindergarten at a school that was closer to her job on the Southwest side of town.

Condit Elementary was a culture shock. Located in the upscale community/city of Bellaire [a small city within the city of Houston], Condit was majority white and consisted of students who came from middle-to-upper-middle-class families. Although I didn't feel different, looking around at my fellow classmates, it was hard to find other students who looked like me.

During my four years at Condit, I was constantly invited to lavish birthday parties and holiday celebrations, where I'd be the only black kid in the room. My mom would spend money—which I'm sure we didn't have-buying me the nicest school clothes. She made sure I attended every party, every event. I guess her hope was that I would feel like I belonged to this new community—and for a while, I did. Except for being black, I thought we were just like the other families.

 

Darius Clark Monroe (second row, third from right), at Condit Elementary School in Houston. Courtesy of Darius Clark Monroe 

At seven and eight years old, I had little to no understanding of race and class. But I knew that there was something different, that there was another world filled with brick houses and swimming pools, a world that was the antithesis of the life we had living in the Carter Plaza apartments, a world that I was able to visit but could never stay.

 

Can you tell me some stories about your experiences showing the film? It must have been interesting and fraught at the same time. Did you feel like you could "be yourself"" while traveling with the film?

Traveling the festival circuit with Evolution of a Criminal has been quite interesting, indeed. Although I've had the privilege of attending numerous festivals with my short film work, nothing could prepare me for the feature film experience.

The festival circuit—and to a larger extent, the independent film community—exists in this strange faux bucolic vacuum. It's overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly privileged, and not too inclusive. This is no secret. It's fascinating because the entire community wraps itself in a giant cloak of progressiveness, but that's not what I encountered.

I've been on the circuit for most of the year, and I've only met three other documentary filmmakers of color. That number is jarring because people of color are quite prominent in documentary films. It's strange to see filmmakers who have no direct relationship to a community, document said community, and then share that work in theaters filled with people who aren't from that community.

Cultural bias is very real. In addition to noticing a dearth of stories by and about people of color, some questions and/or comments from fellow filmmakers and audience members would leave me speechless. I've been told repeatedly that I'm "well spoken" and "articulate"—which isn't a compliment, by the way. At SXSW, a small, cute white woman, who looked to be in her 50s, gave me a warm hug before asking me how it felt to be an "educated black man." I've been told that my film is "too black" and "not relatable."

You wondered if I felt like I could be myself traveling with the film. I don't know how to be anything other than myself. As a society, we live in a constant state of denial. Navigating the truth is a fraught and contentious experience, but it's the only way to grow. I will always speak truth to power.

 

It must have been both difficult and liberating at the same time to take on the challenge of making such a personal film. On one level, you have to deal with exposing yourself to the world—and you don't strike me an exhibitionist. At the same time, because there is really no precedent for a film like this, you also must have realized that there was a great deal of cultural responsibility involved. In some sense, even though you are telling a very singular story—your own—because of the dearth of such tales, there is a danger that your story could become the story. In science terms, your anecdotal tale then becomes scientific evidence, so to speak.

For seven years, I worked and struggled to finish this film. I struggled with structure, style and the overall tone of the story. But I was also concerned with how my family would be presented and judged, how Trei, Pierre and I would be presented and judged, and if I was glamorizing a tragic and unfortunate crime.

Early on, I was definitely aware of the cultural responsibility. I was terrified of making a documentary that further perpetuated negative stereotypes of black people.

Eventually, I had to release all of that energy and just tell the only story I knew, and that was my own. I understood that within my experience, people would hopefully see themselves. In America, my family is one of millions, but making poor choices, feeling the weight of capitalism, living paycheck to paycheck, worrying and wanting to support one's family, seeking forgiveness and struggling with guilt, being judged for past mistakes, hoping and yearning for more compassion, and the resilience of humanity—these are all universal themes and circumstances. I have no ownership of these specific experiences. As humans, we all go through it.

 

A re-enactment scene from darius Clark Monroe's Evolution of a Criminal. Courtesy of Darius Clark Monroe 

When I think about how this story is told, as the director, I was cognizant of the fact that there were tropes and cliché choices I wanted to stay away from. One of my favorite parts of the film is when my grandmother sings to me, but I refused to have her on screen singing for the sake of singing. We've been there, done that. I cringe when films drag out the older black lady (or black church choir) to sing and take us all down to the River Jordan. I honed in on my grandmother's lyrics, and my editor and I both agreed that the song would be more impactful if it played over a poignant moment in the film, which is my journey home from prison.

There was a moment during one feedback session where I received a note to subtitle Pierre. Obviously, after seven years, I understood the words of everyone in the film, thick Southern accents and all. I knew that some viewers may struggle with understanding a few words or sentences, but I never felt the need to subtitle anyone, especially Pierre. To subtitle a black man speaking English is rude, inconsiderate and disrespectful. It's also hurtful.

In another instance, a highly respected European advisor suggested that we add rap to the score. That suggestion quickly fell on deaf ears. As much as I enjoy rap, but again, there were tropes that felt like the obvious choice to outsiders, but as someone from the community who lived this experience and understands complexity, culturally, I knew that a lot of these decisions would do more harm than good.

Evolution of a Criminal opens in theaters October 10, then airs January 12 on PBS' Independent Lens.

Michael Galinsky is a filmmaker and photographer. He and his partners in Rumur, Suki Hawley and David Beilinson, are busy travelling with Who Took Johnny and are in the process of editing their film about Dr. John Sarno and the relationship between mind and body.

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