Review: Blackfish (Cowperthwaite, 2013)

Still from the movie Blackfish

I would classify Blackfish as an “issue” documentary. The issue investigated here is whether or not holding killer whales in captivity for entertainment is dangerous for the trainers and inhumane to the animals. Of course, if you ask the question that way, you don’t need to watch the movie to make a fair guess at what the answer is. So perhaps the power of the film is that it actually asks us to consider this question and then shows us the extent to which conditions at SeaWorld and other marine entertainment parks go beyond negligence and border on barbarity. Complicit are all of us who visit these places and delight in the amazing feats the animals perform without ever asking ourselves the question, Are we loving them to death?

As an issue documentary with a definite point-of-view, Blackfish makes only a slight attempt to be unbiased. This may be less the fault of moviemaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite and more the reality that representatives of SeaWorld have little incentive to participate in the film. The most the documentarian manages is to interview a former SeaWorld trainer who insists that the shows are important in bringing new generations into contact with amazing aspects of the natural world that will then inspire them to become responsible stewards. I’m skeptical, however, that most people who visit SeaWorld are coming away with that message, just as most people don’t come away from circuses wondering how to preserve lion habitat. We had a season pass to the Cleveland SeaWorld when I was three. It might be said that I was too young to notice anything but glow sticks and carnival rides, but I hardly think my parents were much influenced by those visits to “respect nature.” Fundamentally, SeaWorld is a for-profit entity that sells entertainment, not environmental conservation.

I see I’ve digressed.

Let’s say the movie mostly presents one perspective. I think that statement is true enough. It is also a perspective I happen to agree with. Still, there were claims about killer whales that used to strike me as ludicrous but that I believe the movie may have convinced me of. For example, a news clip in the intro of the film shows an animal rights activist suggesting (rather stridently) that the orca killed its trainer because it was driven to psychosis by captivity. My husband and I smirked a little at that. “Oh, those kooky animal rights activists!” we thought. And yet, by the end of the film, I found myself–well, if not agreeing with her, at least admitting the plausibility of her assertion.

Perhaps what I like best about Blackfish is the awe it instills in me for these truly complex, utterly amazing animals. The film succeeds where SeaWorld fails. If everyone who was planning on going to SeaWorld would just watch this instead. Well, my mom always said I was a dreamer.

Notes: 1) California Assembly Bill 2140, if passed, would prohibit orca shows and holding orcas in captivity for entertainment purposes. The bill is on hold for further study. 2) SeaWorld has launched a public campaign refuting the film’s negative assertions, attacking the credibility of the film’s “witnesses” in a manner reminiscent of a courtroom drama. The film has come back and refuted those refutations. Read them both and judge for yourself.