Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Released on: July 26th, 2013
Grade: 4.5 out of 5 meatballs
Reviewed by: Justin Tucker
Orca. Killer whale. Blackfish. These are just a few of the names for Orcinus orca. Majestic and mysterious, they are a truly fascinating species. More than most humans realize, these highly intelligent beings are one of the rulers of the oceans.
In the early 80s, off the coast of Iceland, a young male orca was captured for the purpose of being exploited at the hands of humans. He was named Tilikum and has spent most of his life in a tank, performing as one of the stars of SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. Tilikum also has a history of violent behavior, having killed his first human even before his days at SeaWorld. Since then, he has taunted his trainers and has killed two more people, most recently trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. The incident prompted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to sue SeaWorld and, as of today, he is still performing.
The death of Brancheau caught the attention of documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who had visited SeaWorld previously with her family, inspiring her to tell the story of Tilikum’ and his captivity. The result is Blackfish, a haunting documentary that rakes the muck off an industry that exploits highly evolved creatures whose lives and instincts are beyond the walls of the tank and the cheering human crowds. Certainly anyone can see how a cramped, exploited existence can lead to the mental breakdown of these orcas, as they suspect has happened with Tilikum.
Cowperthwaite interviews many former SeaWorld trainers, a number of whom got their jobs without any sort of marine background. They came to SeaWorld because they loved animals and had a desire to help in addition to train them. The company took advantage of their wide-eyes and naivety, feeding them lies about the animals’ well-being that they had to regurgitate to the public. As the years went on, they became hip to the ruse and began to feel for the captive creatures. Also included is shocking footage, a lot of it from the phones and cameras of SeaWorld spectators, showing instances where these animals have acted maliciously.
Blackfish caused a stir at this year’s Sundance, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, and prompted lawyers for SeaWorld to attend the screening. And SeaWorld should be worried. Blackfish is a powerful film and perhaps the most persuasive documentary since Waiting for ‘Superman’ examined the public school system. Cowperthwaite exposes the company’s deadly negligence and makes a compelling case against captivity, for the sake of both orcas and humans. Blackfish is so raw that it’s hard to watch at times but undoubtedly eye-opening all around.