“Blackfish” is the latest addition to the recent wave of activist documentaries that exist exclusively to promote awareness of and involvement in their cause. You won’t find much rhetorical nuance or discourse with the opposing side here, but such tactics don’t spawn headlines, which is clearly what director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and her subjects saw a need for (otherwise, they’d simply have written magazine articles rather than going to the trouble of making an accessible, widely publicized doc). Their basic argument: orca whales are not meant to live in captivity, and SeaWorld’s commitment to this practice and treating them as amusement park attractions is inhumane.
Cowperthwaite begins with the 9-1-1 tapes from the 2010 death of SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau, establishing upfront that orca captivity not only harms the whales, but humans as well. From there, the filmmaker jumps back over 20 years in time and moves forward chronologically, using the life story of the orca who killed Brancheau, Tilikum, as a narrative spine. You may remember the news coverage of the horrific incident, but you probably didn’t know that before Brancheau, Tilikum killed two other people. The first was a trainer at his former home, Sealand of the Pacific in Canada, which closed for good in 1991 as a result of the death. The second was a man who evaded SeaWorld security and stayed after hours; his body was found with Tilikum in the tank the next day. Nonetheless, SeaWorld kept Tilikum on as a performer until the third tragedy occurred. They also used his sperm to breed dozens of offspring, a practice which one interviewee suggests could have potentially deadly ramifications if Tilikum’s genes made him more likely to snap in captivity.
Tilikum’s story is told by five former SeaWorld trainers who have since denounced the company, their interviews serving as de facto narration. Cowperthwaite asks them about a host of topics throughout the film, from the personal (when they came to realize SeaWorld was inhumane) to the scientific (what happens to orcas, on a biological level, when they are held captive). Found footage is interspersed, from news coverage of SeaWorld accidents to an especially harrowing tape of an orca nearly killing a trainer, plunging him to the bottom of the tank repeatedly for 12 minutes. The filmmaking is not particularly sophisticated, but it doesn’t need to be; after Cowperthwaite shows us all the things that can go wrong with orca captivity, we’re fully convinced it should stop.
“Blackfish” avoids tackling certain tough questions in any depth, primarily “If orca captivity were outlawed tomorrow, what should we do with the orcas that are currently in captivity and wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild if they were released?” Cowperthwaite also doesn’t try to start a healthy dialogue with SeaWorld—this is an angry, uncompromising doc—although the extent to which this is possible (the company denied an interview request) is debatable. But the film undeniably succeeds in what it sets out to do: make people recognize an injustice taking place. I long assumed that most of the orcas at SeaWorld were “rescued” from near-death experiences in the wild after seeing a few local news puff pieces about such over the years. I couldn’t have been more wrong, and without “Blackfish,” I probably would have never been set straight.