‘The envelope please’: Darnella Frazier deserved an Academy Award
In this image from police body camera video, Darnella Frazier films former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin outside Cup Foods in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. | AP

The annual Academy Awards ceremony—wherein a pack of swag bag-shlepping celebs clad in brand-name couture patted themselves on the back on live TV, while thanking their agents, hair stylists, managers, makeup artists, etc.—took place Sunday, April 25, in Los Angeles. To be fair, a number of films that competed for those coveted golden statuettes do have artistic excellence and/or social significance. Half a century later, the 1960s/70s New Left was finally ready for its close-up, with The Trial of the Chicago 7, about the anti-war movement, and the Black Panther-themed Judas and the Black Messiah, each nominated for six Oscars, including for Best Picture.

Much to Hollywood’s credit, Judas’s co-star Daniel Kaluuya scored the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his electrifying depiction of the Panthers’ Chairman Fred Hampton. Time, a timely meditation on African Americans and our criminal (in)justice system, was in contention for Best Documentary, but lost out to the ecologically minded South African film My Octopus Teacher.

Darnella Frazier | via Instagram

But as far as this cinema historian/critic is concerned, 2020’s most impactful filmmaker of world historical importance wasn’t Aaron Sorkin, but Darnella Frazier. This spunky teenager ensured that a bogus press release by the Minneapolis Police Department’s director of public information purporting the Big Lie “man dies after a medical incident during police interaction” wouldn’t consign George Floyd’s death to obscurity, but instead became an international cause célèbre.

Not since Abraham Zapruder’s home movie camera captured President Kennedy’s assassination on film has a bystander’s footage packed such a wallop. Darnella’s steely-eyed eyewitness reportage of MPD Officer Derek Chauvin’s snuffing out of George Floyd’s life with his knee on the helpless, handcuffed man’s neck went viral, seen internationally by countless millions of viewers on social media, television, and, perhaps most importantly, in that Minneapolis courthouse where Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd. If Sergei Eisenstein’s 1927 classic movie Ten Days That Shook the World celebrated the Russian Revolution, Darnella’s document, which reignited the Black Lives Matter uprising and America’s ongoing racial reckoning, could be entitled 10 Minutes That Shook the World.

President Biden called Darnella “a brave young woman with a smartphone camera.” After Chauvin’s conviction for brutally killing his brother, Philonise Floyd said, “Today you have the cameras all around the world to see and show what happened to my brother. It was a motion picture. The world sees his life being extinguished. And I could do nothing but watch, especially in that courtroom—over and over and over again, as my brother was murdered.”

Oscar-winning documentarian Michael Moore summed it up best, tweeting: “You changed the world. No film in our time has been more important than yours. Now the rise-up, the fight, moves quickly forward. Thank you, Darnella.”

What Darnella filmed in one long take is more compellingly gruesome than the famed, intricately edited shower scene slaughter in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho. And the reason why is that unlike Norman Bates’s knifing of Janet Leigh’s character, what the then-17-year-old spontaneously recorded with her cell phone—Chauvin’s knee crushing Floyd’s neck—was all too real.

In Siegfried Kracauer’s 1960 Theory of Film, the German intellectual pondered the movie medium’s unique attributes, writing: “Films may claim aesthetic validity if they build from their basic properties; like photographs, that is, they must record and reveal physical reality. [Films have the] cinematic approach [when they] acknowledge the realistic tendency by concentrating on actual physical existence.”

In the history of moving images, one would be hard pressed to find a superior exemplar of filmic realism than Darnella Frazier. The veracity of her footage not only inspired a mass rebellion but provided irrefutable evidence of the lies and spin of Chauvin’s defense, and more than any other factor is responsible for the conviction of Floyd’s torturer. In doing so, the accomplishments of all of Sunday’s Academy Award nominees and winners pale in comparison, and Darnella deserves to be, shall we say, an Oscar “nomi-knee” and winner.

It was, alas, too late for Darnella to be nominated for the Best Documentary (Short Subject) or Best Cinematography Oscars at the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony. However, according to the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences’ website, she was arguably eligible in other categories: “HONORARY AWARDS ARE GIVEN FOR LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENTS, EXCEPTIONAL CONTRIBUTIONS TO MOTION PICTURE ARTS….”

Before a crowd began to gather, Darnella Frazier bravely stood alone filming Chauvin and the other officers involved as they were in the process of murdering George Floyd. | via AP

More than anybody else on Earth, Darnella Frazier merited either an Honorary Award or a Special Achievement Oscar. The last winner in the latter category did so for “virtual reality”; however, Darnella fulfilled the inherent mission of the cinematic medium as an audio-visual art form by undeniably revealing actual reality itself. The plucky teenager also deserves Academy Award recognition for standing her ground as Chauvin was grinding his knee into Floyd’s neck and MPD officers threatened to mace the dauntless adolescent, while Darnella continued to shoot those shots seen around the world.

She also had the fortitude to take the witness stand during Chauvin’s trial, where among other things the high school student tearfully confessed to experiencing sleepless nights, “apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life,” while he was being liquidated. Darnella’s eloquent words reminded me of the ending of 1994’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Schindler’s List, when the rescuer who snatched 1,100 Jews from the jaws of the Nazi death machine mused: “I could have got more out… I threw away so much money… This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there… I didn’t do enough!… This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person… For this… I could have gotten one more person… and I didn’t!” sobbed Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler.

Even if Darnella Frazier—who has already received the 2020 PEN/Benenson Courage Award from Spike Lee and was actually mentioned in passing during the Academy Awards telecast—wasn’t presented any special Oscar, this special young lady deserves to be offered a full scholarship to study cinema at a top film school, like the Sundance Institute, American Film Institute, UCLA, or USC. Who knows what future films may come from this accidental auteur on the world scene?


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.