The Envelope Please: Darnella Frazier Deserves an Academy Award

The annual Academy Awards ceremony – wherein a pack of swag bag schlepping celebs clad in brand name couture pat themselves on the back on live TV, while thanking their agents, hair stylists, managers, makeup artists, etc. – is set for Sunday, April 25. To be fair, a number of films competing for those coveted golden statuettes do have artistic excellence and/or social significance. The 1960s/70s New Left is ready for its close-up, with the Black Panther-themed Judas and the Black Messiah and The Trial of the Chicago 7, about the antiwar movement, each nominated for six Oscars, including for Best Picture. Time, a timely meditation on African Americans and our criminal (in)justice system, is contending for Best Documentary.

But as far as this cinema historian/critic is concerned, 2020’s most impactful filmmaker of world-historical importance isn’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 “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 ignited the Black Lives Matter movement 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 seen 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’ 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 uprising 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 today’s Academy Award nominees pale in comparison, and Darnella deserves to be, shall we say, an Oscar “nomi-knee” and winner.

It is, alas, too late for Darnella to win the Best Documentary (Short Subject) or Best Cinematography Oscar at the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony. However, according to the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences’ website: “HONORARY AWARDS ARE GIVEN FOR LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENTS, EXCEPTIONAL CONTRIBUTIONS TO MOTION PICTURE ARTS…” (Honorary Award | Oscars.org | Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)

More than anybody else on Earth, Darnella Frazier merits either an Honorary Award or a Special Achievement Academy Award. 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 Oscar 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 (Darnella Frazier, young witnesses offer emotional testimony in Chauvin trial – YouTube) 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 (Schindler’s List: I could have saved one more (ending scene) Full HD – YouTube).

Even if Darnella Frazier – who has already received the 2020 PEN/Benenson Courage Award from Spike Lee – doesn’t get any special Oscar, this special young lady deserves scholarships 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 is a contributor to the new book on America’s former Poet Laureate “Conversations With W.S. Merwin” and co-author of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book“.