This isn’t a new phenomenon either. In 2008 at Cannes, Spike Lee took shots at some of his fellow directors, particularly with reference to the lack of representation in war films, stating “Clint Eastwood made two films about Iwo Jima that ran for more than four hours total, and there was not one Negro actor on the screen.”
Fifteen years later, Nolan is facing similar critiques for his depiction of scientists who worked with the Manhattan Project, a research project that introduced nuclear weapons to the world.
Those trying to defend Nolan have argued this is a historical film, and that most scientists during that time were white. Still, the nonwhite men and women of all races who were a part of this large chapter of history shouldn’t be reduced to footnotes.
According to the National Park Service, “Thousands of African American women and men contributed to the Manhattan Project, but many of their stories remain untold. They were an important part of the workforce… Although African Americans were generally construction workers, laborers, janitors or domestic workers, a limited number of African American men and women worked as scientists and technicians at smaller Manhattan Project sites in New York and Chicago.”
In the blockbuster film, there is one Black character credited via IMDB as J. Ernest Wilkins, who was played by Ronald Auguste. However, his scene was extremely brief, his appearance a meager footnote during Oppenheimer’s visit to Chicago, and it was not apparent at all who he was nor what his association was to the Manhattan project.
In real life, J. Ernest Wilkins was a child prodigy, who already had earned his Ph.D. before the age of 21. In 1944, he “joined the University of Chicago’s Met Lab to research plutonium” and his work along with “other Black scientists like Jasper Jeffries, Carolyn Parker, Samuel Proctor Massie, and Moddie Daniel Taylor…and [William Jacob] Knox’s contributions were crucial to the Manhattan Project.”
The movie also neglects to mention that when those who had been working in silo, as directed by the government, discovered the full purpose of their work, “70 scientists and researchers — including Wilkins and Jeffries — signed the Szilard Petition in 1945, urging President Truman against the use of the atomic bomb against Japan. The petition, however, was never seen by the president before the US dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima,” reports Business Insider.
Another omission: women. The Washington Post pointed out how “[f]emale scientists played important roles in the Manhattan Project that created the first atomic bomb during World War II.
But you wouldn’t know this from watching “Oppenheimer.”
There were 640 women working at Los Alamos, 11 percent of the workforce, not counting other Manhattan Project sites elsewhere in the country. Many of these women filled administrative roles, but nearly half were scientists — mathematicians, physicists, chemists, biologists and computational analysts.”
Additionally, yet another oversight involves the native inhabitants of Los Alamos, NM, where “Oppenheimer” largely takes place.
With the Trinity test, those residents became “the first human test subjects of the world’s most powerful weapon.” “There were more than 13,000 New Mexicans living within a 50-mile radius. Many of those children, women and men were not warned before or after the test,” The New York Times reports.
In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a study, which found that “radiation levels near some homes in the area reached ‘almost 10,000 times what is currently allowed in public areas.’” Many families have experience decades of adverse health outcomes as a result, including several generations of cancers after the detonation of the bomb.
There were contributors to the Manhattan project other than the white men portrayed in “Oppenheimer“ and many others who bore the brunt of America’s militarism. They shouldn’t get left out of history once again.