Criminals are usually thought of as hardened lawbreakers, but shows like Orange is the New Black have started painting a different picture of those put behind bars. While the show is based on the real life experiences of former inmate, Piper Kerman, Orange is the New Black is a fictionalized series. However Darius Monroe’s documentary, Evolution of a Criminal, is an unflinchingly honest exploration that shows how one bad choice can affect not just the life of the criminal, but everyone around them.
Monroe is able to peel back the curtain in such a revealing way because the criminal he is exploring – is himself.
Monroe did not have a troubled childhood or a strained relationship with his family – the problem was he cared too much. After realizing the true financial burden his family was facing, Monroe dedicated himself to being a good student with his eyes on college and a part-time job to help with the family finances. But after his family’s home was burglarized, Monroe decided on a different way to get his family out of their growing debt – robbing a bank.
Evolution of a Criminal quickly turns stereotypes and misconceptions on their head by showing that Monroe was not a kid running with a bad crowd – he simply made a terrible choice that changed the course of his life forever. As the film’s narrator, Monroe does not hold back as he interviews his family and friends to get their perspective on his arrest and in doing so, reveals just how much pain and anguish his decision caused those around him.
But it is Monroe’s attempt to atone and apologize to his victims that are Evolution of a Criminal’s most compelling portions. Monroe is clearly an intelligent and charismatic young man, but these are the exact traits that made him think he could get away with such a crime. Most criminals do not take the time to go back and apologize to their victims, and this simple act elicits some of the film’s most surprising (and honest) moments.
While Monroe does not expand much on his time behind bars, it is clear the five years he spent in jail had a major impact on his life. Rather than becoming bitter, Monroe used the time to work towards becoming a filmmaker so he could tell his story. Now a graduate of NYU, some of Evolution of a Criminal’s best and most amusing moments come from his professor’s reactions to finding out what his documentary is about. But more affecting is hearing how their impression of Monroe would have been different if they had known about his past indiscretions.
Emotions run high throughout the film, but it is when Monroe recalls being in prison alongside those his own age (but facing life sentences) that is the most poignant. Despite their seemingly hopeless future, Monroe notes how these prisoners were still full of hope and making plans for their future. This resilience and determination clearly inspired Monroe and taught him that second chances do not happen for everyone.
The film’s one misstep is when Monroe takes viewers through the the robbery he orchestrated utilizing reenactments (portrayed by Darius E. Clark, Vladimi Versailles, and Jeremie Harris). While the reenactments certainly work to take you into the heat of the moment, they slow down the momentum of the film and take away from the brutal honesty and realism Monroe has created up to that point.
It is clear Monroe made Evolution of a Criminal as a way to show people that criminals are not all the same and people can change. A lofty goal for a film created and narrated by someone people may not think to trust, but a feat Monroe accomplishes thanks to his brutal honesty and ability to not only hear the truth, but come face-to-face with those he wronged. Evolution of a Criminal is certainly a personal story for Monroe, but it is also an important one as it challenges perceptions of criminals and what it really means to try and move past the stigma of being one.
The Upside: Monroe succeeds as both Evolution of a Criminal’s subject and director; well constructed narrative that explores the film’s thesis without painting Monroe as a martyr; powerful interviews played for honesty rather than sympathy
The Downside: Reenactments slow pace and slightly hinder the overall impact of the narrative
On the Side: Spike Lee, another filmmaker not afraid to take on difficult topics, is noted as one of the film’s producers.