George Bush (the first) never would have won the 1988 Presidential election had Darius Clark Monroe been the subject of his campaign. Monroe is no Willie Horton, the convicted murderer who later raped a woman and assaulted her boyfriend when he was let out on parole. The "tough on crime" wave, which helped Bush clinch the presidency and accelerated the expansion of America's prison system, is now under cinematic scrutiny in Monroe's autobiographical documentary and directorial debut, Evolution of a Criminal. Monroe is a sensitive, eloquent young man, trying to make sense of a crime he committed as a teenager, when he spearheaded a bank robbery and came away with $140,000. But rather than blowing the money on fancy cars and clothes, he put it in a shoebox and left it on his mother's bed, hoping it would lift the family out of debt. Family figures strongly into Monroe's narrative, and the voices of his mother, grandmother, stepfather, and aunts shape his account of how a good kid could don a skeleton mask and hold strangers at gunpoint. The strangers also appear on-screen, as Monroe seeks them out, one by one, hoping for redemption. Sometimes he gets it, sometimes he doesn't.
Evolution joins a growing chorus of voices calling attention to the cycle of poverty, police violence, and prison sentences that pulverize the dreams of black men in America. But Monroe's voice is soft, not brash, and it is filtered by images that are as personal as they are political. A ceramic jar on a kitchen counter, where a poor family might store money. A Southern sunset interrupted by sagging telephone wires. And the stretch of a cotton field, where Monroe and other prisoners are forced to work, because human hands are still more efficient than machines when it comes to picking cotton.