The Netflix Queue: Blackfish (2013)
Blackfish is available for streaming on Netflix.
In February of 2010, the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in the tank of Tilikum the killer whale, made headlines around the world. She wasn’t the first person Tilikum, who at 12,000lbs and 22.5 feet long is the largest male orca in captivity, had killed: he’s also responsible for the death of a trainer at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia in 1991 and a man who allegedly snuck into his tank and SeaWorld and was found, dead and naked, draped over Tilikum’s back in 1999. Already, a potentially serial-killing whale makes an interesting documentary subject.
Blackfish is a film with a clear agenda: shed light on the misunderstood whale and the inherent cruelty of captivity. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite keeps it out of the realm of animal rights propaganda, though, by carefully controlling the tone: where a more sensationalist filmmaker may have spoken to activists, Cowperthwaite relies mainly on interview pieces with Tilikum’s former trainers, all of whom were fond of the animal and sympathetic toward the abuse the film speculates led to the incidents.
SeaWorld declined to be part of the film, so naturally, the finished product comes across a little one-sided: the closest we get to the park’s side of the story is through old commercials and the trainers introducing themselves and their backgrounds, including what brought them to the park in the first place. It sets up the magical experience of visiting SeaWorld, which is, it’s true, many people’s only chance to see marine mammals in person. Cowperthwaite’s thesis, though, is that it’s not worth it at the expense of the animals, and as John Crowe, a former fisherman who captured whales for marine parks in the 1970s, describes his experience, likens it to kidnapping (they were instructed only to catch whale calves), and considers it the worst thing he’s ever done, it’s hard to argue.
Of course, SeaWorld wasn’t part of the film, and it’s important to note that Dawn Branchau’s family spoke out against it as well, saying that it is not her story and that she would not have worked at SeaWorld for 15 years if the animals were not properly cared for. With all that in mind, though, Blackfish does a spectacular job in building empathy for captive whales and, at the very least, will make you think twice before implicitly supporting the practice by visiting a marine park. Definitely worth a watch.