Let me begin by saying that this film is a polemic. It is a little heavy handed at times and it is written and edited to draw a single conclusion. It does present some very interesting evidence and testimony, but—as with all things—the message herein should be taken with a grain of salt and augmented with independent research.
On 19 January 2013 the documentary film Blackfish was screened at the Sundance Film Festival and was later picked up for wider release by CNN Films and Magnolia pictures. Since then it has been shown in theatres across the country, on CNN, and added to Netflix where it has been viewed over 600,000 times since 13 December. It’s even received a nod from the Academy. The film has stirred controversy and caused SeaWorld Entertainment to go on a major PR defensive. And it will make you think about just how much you want to visit their parks.
I went into my viewing of Blackfish not knowing of its focus on Tilikum or the incident in 2010 at SeaWorld Orlando. I had heard some mention of the film in the press, but was really only drawn to it once it appeared on my Netflix “recommended for you” list.
Blackfish tells a compelling story and presents disturbing evidence of the negative effects of captivity on orcas. Picking up where the post-Free Willy activist swell of the 90s left off, Blackfish lays out the history of captive orcas from capture in the wild through to modern artificial insemination breeding. Along the way filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite highlights some important differences in the scientific community’s knowledge of the killer whale and SeaWorld’s talking points—i.e. dorsal collapse statistics, pod diversity and structure, lifespan, etc.
Using Tilikum as the primary focus the film discusses three serious incidents involving orcas and resulting in human deaths. It is a disturbing and tragic tale of mismanagement of captive wild animals and corporate interests trumping the application of scientific knowledge and animal husbandry best practices.
Since the film’s release SeaWorld Entertainment has embarked on a two-part PR campaign designed to first discredit the film’s reporting and then turn the public’s focus away from Dawn Brancheu’s death—the most recent of three involving Tilikum—by highlighting SeaWorld’s conservation program. Rather than addressing the allegations directly, they are trying to move as far away from them as possible with as little discussion as they can get away with. There are, in fact, several articles, investigative essays, and court testimony from eyewitnesses challenging SeaWorld’s version of events.
Cowperthwaite spends almost the entire runtime of the film on Tilikum with only tangential mention of the other animals in captivity, and this is where I think Blackfish misses its stride. While Tilikum’s story makes for a good narrative backbone for the film, it limits the discussion. If the goal of the film is to expose mistreatment or mismanagement of the animals, the orca’s poor compatibility with life in captivity, or, poor communication guidelines, training, or education of SeaWorld’s personnel, there’s a more compelling story to be told than what is presented. While the incidents surrounding Tilikum are sensational, I want to know more about the psychology of the family groups orcas live in and how the animals readjust to being separated and moved to different facilities—seemingly without any concern for which individual belongs to which family group or how the groups at any given facility are related. We spend a lot of time looking at the human deaths connected to Tilikum, with moments of discussion about intelligence and cognition, family groups, language, training, relocation, and captive breeding added in for punctuation. Having said that, the film is engaging and well presented.
Blackfish has been hailed as one of the best documentary films of 2013 and is, as I mentioned before, on the short list for an Oscar with good reason. I’ve only touched on the controversy surrounding it, but the film does a good job navigating the intricate details of the history of captive orcas and the events leading up to Dawn Brancheau’s death in 2010.
This post was updated on 16 August 2014 to clarify language.