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Brandon Darby was essentially a god among radical activists in the South in the mid-2000s. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he traveled to New Orleans from his home in Austin, Texas, to rescue friend and former Black Panther Robert King Wilkerson. Darby succeeded, and spent the subsequent months bucking officials in the city’s Ninth Ward as one of the co-founders of the relief group Common Ground.
Thus begins director Jamie Meltzer’s critically acclaimed documentary, which snagged the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s New York Documentary Festival. The ensuing years of Darby’s life play out on film like paint peeling off a house in fast-forward, as internal conflict and outside pressure chip away at the man’s ideology. As Darby sums up the post-Katrina fallout as “really fucking sad” early in the film, it’s hard not to feel he’s foreshadowing his own future.
By now, the name Brandon Darby has become synonymous in activist circles with words like snitch, rat, turncoat, fake, backstabber. His role as an FBI informant landed David McKay and Bradley Crowder—known collectively as the Texas Two—in prison following the riotous 2008 Republican National Convention protests in St. Paul, Minn. The duo idolized Darby; he got them busted for constructing Molotov cocktails. Now Darby receives frequent death threats, lives with a gun close at hand, and tours the country warning Tea Party groups of the immediate threat posed by his former cohorts. But how did a man once devoted to revolutionary ideals, indeed a man who would have made the Molotovs himself, wander so far from the radical left?
The answer is a tragic tale of mounting depression and dissolution, which Meltzer lays out through a diverse cast of law enforcement officials, reporters and activists. Each acts as a foil to Darby’s central narration, challenging his recollection of events and even calling b.s. at times. Informant makes it increasingly more difficult to trust Darby’s own account of how he went from patron saint to pariah. He becomes erratic, almost un-credible, as if the very foundation of his 30-odd years of life has crumbled beneath him.
Darby’s path is littered with the stuff of mental breakdowns. That may not explain why his internal pendulum swung so dramatically along the political spectrum. It does, however, explain why Informant is the kind of film you can’t take your eyes off. We’re all attracted to imperfections, particularly when they foretell imminent collapse. The sad truth is, Darby has no one to blame for the shoddy work but himself. And nowhere is the length of his fall more evident than when Wilkerson, the very man he’d gone with to New Orleans to save, states Brandon Darby “is dead to me.”
Informant screens at the Wilma Sat., Feb. 23, at 6:30 PM.