Rather than a story about the atrocities committed against the Japanese people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second Imperialist War, Christopher Nolan’s 2023 movie “Oppenheimer” tells the story of a man who, despite his moral scruples, gave the U.S. government the power to destroy the world.
“Oppenheimer” does not claim to be a totally objective retelling of historical events, and Nolan may not personally attempt to actively valorize J. Robert Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy. However, in centering and humanizing Oppenheimer as a misunderstood quantum mechanical scientist within the context of these atrocities, Nolan inadvertently softens the ire an average moviegoer might have against the man who helped create the atomic bomb, handed it to the U.S., and grew surprised that the U.S. wanted to use it to kill anyone it deemed its enemies.
When the U.S. government unsurprisingly turned on Oppenheimer because of his Communist sympathies and his opposition to the development of the H-bomb—audiences were even likely to sympathize.
After showcasing the establishment of the top-secret Los Alamos site in which scientists all across the country gathered to test the bomb, the movie spends time showing Oppenheimer struggle with his role in the murder of the Japanese people.
“I have blood on my hands,” he says to Harry S. Truman, played by Gary Oldman.
“Oppenheimer” never shows the physical and psychological destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the massacre of at least hundreds of thousands of people.
But the audience sees Oppenheimer hallucinate burnt bodies and wince at the reports of casualties whose number only grows long after the detonations.
While he’s being literally and figuratively applauded by the ruling class for killing colonized people, Oppenheimer visualizes the destruction his actions caused: the flash of an impossibly bright light yielding doom, blood-curdling screams, and human flesh turned to ash.
Colonial contradiction glossed over
Though Nolan takes great cinematic lengths to show this internal chaos taking place within Oppenheimer the character, the colonial contradiction that even allowed for the U.S. to murder masses of the Japanese people with impunity in the first place is not seriously showcased or even hinted at.
The scientists working on the bomb raised concerns of the continuance of working on the bomb after the fall of the Nazis and the overall implication of the existence of a weapon with potential limitless destruction. But that’s as much pushback the film shows—no one is shown explicitly indicting the U.S.
The internal contradictions of Jim Crow and segregation alongside the existence of African GIs—realities that seriously blight U.S. legitimacy—are not discussed. Audiences are only reminded that black people even exist by a snide remark made when Oppenheimer’s colleague says, “I want to vote for integration, not talk about it.”
Even more glaring is that the film ignores the existence of Indigenous people on the land in what is called New Mexico where the bombs were tested. People who were living directly on the Los Alamos land where the scientists were based were forced to move.
Worse, people who were in the Trinity area where they actually set off nuclear bombs in testing weren’t moved and instead were inundated with radiation from the test bombings. They weren’t even told what was happening as they continued to drink contaminated water and eat contaminated food. Even today, the rates of cancer among the people in that area are much higher than anywhere else in the U.S.
Film doesn’t expose the illegitimacy of U.S. global domination
The film itself may not be outright saying the bombing of the Japanese people was a necessary outcome of the war. It might even try to interrogate its morality. But despite its inclusion of political opposition like Communist Party USA members and even Oppenheimer’s own sympathies to the Communist movement, the film does not expose or investigate U.S. global tyranny and outright illegitimacy in an impactful way.
Onlookers don’t walk away with a renewed understanding of the colonial playground the U.S. makes of the world. No one questions the moral delinquency of the U.S. to oppress Africans daily within its borders and go out and pretend to play peacemaker in the world.
Africans in the United States couldn’t get jobs, buy houses, build businesses, or even live with a semblance of security in day-to-day life. These are the same people that died in the frontlines of an imperialist war—a war whose goal was to keep Africa and the rest of the world physically divided and perpetually economically subservient to the West.
The only time the U.S. government is unquestionably painted as a classic villain is when years later, Oppenheimer’s security clearance is revoked because his loose Communist sympathies made him a target under the “Red Scare.”
Even then, the movie emphasizes this to be the handiwork of a few bad actors like chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission Lewis Strauss and circuit judge Roger Robb as opposed to the government-wide repression that existed to terrorize and silence any form of dissent—a policy practiced well into the 21st century, shown through the July 29, 2022 FBI attack on the African People’s Socialist Party.
Despite questioning the morals of the atom bomb, the film doesn’t seriously oppose the idea that the government nevertheless dropped the bombs to end the war—shirking the opportunity to outright accuse the U.S. of genocide and global terrorism. Even the so-called Communists portrayed in this film ended up contributing to the war in one way or another.
But an African Internationalist analysis shows that through its newly-made weapon of mass destruction, the U.S. government murdered hundreds of thousands, maintained its colonial stranglehold on the world, and solidified its place as a global power willing to do anything to protect the dialectic of colonized and colonizer nations—living off the labors of Africans and other colonized people everywhere.
Billion-dollar Hollywood biopics can never hope to portray the world as seen and experienced by the African masses. We cannot look to Hollywood for ideological clarity.
But we can support and nurture African filmmakers who are of the African working class—not only to tell the stories of our people but to birth revolutionaries of a new generation and make total liberation achievable in our lifetime.
Culture for the Revolution!
End Imperialist Wars!