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Who 'Oppenheimer' Erases

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In the film 'Oppemnheimer,' Robert Oppenheimer (left) wrestles with his development of the atomic bomb, while victims of his creation (right) go unseen on the screen. (Getty Images)

After Li Lai watched an advance screening of Oppenheimer in Seattle, she didn’t expect her take on the movie to go viral — or for it to receive so much backlash from “WWII bros,” as Lai calls them.

“People seem to love #Oppenheimer, but I’ll just say it,” wrote Lai, the Bay Area-born Taiwanese American founder of a site called Mediaversity that grades films based on their diversity, before she went to bed that night. “I was uncomfy watching yet another movie about tortured white male genius when the victims of the atrocities glossed over by the script — Japanese people, interned Japanese Americans, and Native Americans — had no voice.”

“It isn’t about Japanese Americans or native Americans,” one Twitter user replied. “Anything more you wanna cry about?”

One only has to glance at the replies to Lai to see that people have complicated feelings about Oppenheimer, and that some still justify the atomic bombing of Japan and its ongoing consequences for victims’ families.

As a Japanese and Filipina American who has lived with the generational trauma caused by the bomb, I felt conflicted about whether or not to even see Oppenheimer. Of course, it turned out I wasn’t alone.

‘Who was this movie intended for?’

Miya Sommers is a fifth-generation Japanese American living in Oakland who doesn’t plan on seeing Oppenheimer. Sommers’ grandfather lived in a town outside of Hiroshima when the atomic bomb hit, killing several of her family members.

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“I’m feeling more and more resistant to wanting to pay money to sit through that, knowing that it’s going to be pretty traumatizing,” Sommers said. “I don’t care about [Oppenheimer’s sense of] guilt. Basically my whole family is dead because of him.”

A thin white man with sharp cheekbones stands alone outside, concern etched on his face. He is wearing a brown suit and hat.
Cillian Murphy stars in ‘Oppenheimer.’ (Syncopy/ Universal)

In Oppenheimer, the post-bomb carnage that Sommers’ grandfather once described to her in vivid detail — severed limbs, bodies stripped of skin — goes unseen by the viewer. In its place are the reactions of Robert Oppenheimer and other white Americans as he watches a slideshow of the aftermath, his stiff, haunted face illuminated by the white glow of a projector screen thousands of miles from the final resting places of over 100,000 Japanese people.

Granted, Oppenheimer’s own perspective is to be expected in an Oppenheimer biopic. But the total absence of Japanese people in the film raises questions for Lai.

“It was very chilling that you never get to see any Japanese or Japanese Americans in the movie,” Lai said. “Like, who was this movie intended for? Was the erasure of Japanese voices purposeful or was it just lazy?”

Karen Umemoto, a second-generation Japanese American and the director of Asian American Studies at the University of California Los Angeles, says that she can’t erase the graphic images of bomb victims she saw at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Japan from her mind.

“But those images were what made me so resolute in my belief that the nuclear option is bad and should be destroyed,” she said.

The Atomic Bomb Dome at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial
The Atomic Bomb Dome is seen at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial ahead of the G7 Leaders’ Summit in Hiroshima on May 18, 2023. (Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)

Umemoto, a former community organizer for Bay Area Asians for Nuclear Disarmament, says that the vast majority of Americans don’t understand the full horrific gravity of nuclear warfare, which is what makes images of the atomic bombings so powerful.

“I would show depictions of the bombings that are raw and honest,” Umemoto said. “But that’s not what sells movie tickets.”

What makes a film like Oppenheimer feel even weightier is absence of blockbuster Hollywood films that represent nonwhite perspectives on the war, says Umemoto.

‘A powerful tool for white male perspectives’

Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Christopher Nolan, the film has also received praise — even from critics of its exclusively white male viewpoint of Asian pain. For some, its technical and cinematic merits have made the debate about its narrow perspective even more fraught.

“I thought it was cool that the movie achieved this sense of uneasiness, which I think was purposeful,” Lai said. “I just don’t feel good about it for other reasons.”

Ponipate Rokolekutu, a professor of Race and Resistance Studies at San Francisco State University, said he wanted to scream out into the theater of mostly white moviegoers when he saw the film. As an Indigenous Fijian, Rokolekutu had hoped that Oppenheimer might shed light on the Manhattan project’s consequences for the Pacific Islands; the U.S. dropped 67 nuclear test bombs on and above the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958. He was also hoping for the perspectives of Japanese and Japanese American people, whose home nation was also brutally occupying islands in the Pacific during the war.

“I was struck by the dilemma that Oppenheimer had when he was fighting with the morality of the whole project,” Rokolekutu said. But what was more striking, he said, was everyone who was left out, who is consistently left out in blockbuster war movies.

“Hollywood is a powerful tool for white perspectives,” he said. “They don’t want other histories to be known.”

The film does bring nuance to Oppenheimer’s experience, from his emotional suffering over the atomic bomb to the anti-Communist witch hunt levied against him in 1954. Elsewhere in the film, though, Nolan hints at people of color as expediently as possible.

When the Manhattan project breaks ground in Los Alamos, Oppenheimer makes a short quip about the “Indians” who live there, but the film doesn’t elaborate on that detail. The Native peoples who were displaced by the project and whose resources were contaminated by uranium mining and nuclear testing are mentioned only one more time: after the bombing, when Oppenheimer, talking about the land, says, “give it back to the Indians.”

For Lai, watching the point of view that Hollywood deemed worthy of a $100 million budget, “I felt very invisible and lonely for another three hours dedicated to a white male genius.”

movie posters for 'barbie' and 'oppenheimer' next to each other
Movie posters for ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’ are pictured outside of the Cinemark Somerdale 16 and XD in Somerdale, New Jersey. (Hannah Beier/Washington Post/Getty Images)

In the end, I decided it was worth seeing Oppenheimer, because I wanted to know how the film did and didn’t uphold Hollywood’s legacy. When my partner and I made our way to the auditorium through crowds of monochromatic Barbie-goers, we felt nervous about what we were about to put ourselves through as Japanese Americans. (The “Barbenheimer” media frenzy, including fan-made costumes and movie poster mashups of Barbie with a fiery mushroom cloud, only further obscures Oppenheimer’s omissions.)

As Oppenheimer and friends triumphed onscreen — their successful test bomb bathing the theater in blinding orange light — we sobbed quietly.

“That scene made me think of how my grandfather climbed to the top of a hill near his house outside Hiroshima when he was 10 and watched the mushroom cloud get bigger,” my partner told me as we exited the theater.

By the film’s end, Oppenheimer is remorseful — not that he ever apologized for the atrocities in Japan — and completes his heavy-hearted hero’s journey with a profound understanding of how his invention will change the world. I was left thinking of the quote by Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle: “Not only will America go to your country and kill all your people … they’ll come back 20 years later and make a movie about how killing your people made their soldiers feel sad.”

Oppenheimer does stay true to its scope, which is one man’s perspective. It’s also disappointingly faithful to a Hollywood canon that prioritizes white American experiences, leaving the pain, self-reflections and nuanced interiority of America’s victims unseen and unheard.

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