“Blackfish” (2013)

by A.J. Hakari

"Blackfish" poster

My childhood had no shortage of media aimed at whipping my demographic into ecocentricity. But the mania never really took, probably because what the suits saw as a spike in environmental awareness was actually kids going apeshit over Robin Williams as a rapping bat. Not even living in the age of Free Willy could get me jazzed about the inevitable trip to SeaWorld, which, according to the chilling new documentary Blackfish, is guilty of far worse than making us wish we were at Space Mountain instead. To say the movie is eye-opening is an understatement, and though I imagine many will accuse it of shaming or shocking audience into siding with it, I’m honestly not sure I’d want to meet the person who walks away from this unmoved.

In 2010, tragedy befell Orlando’s popular SeaWorld attraction. Tilikum, the park’s prized killer whale (and the largest in captivity), claimed the life of trainer Dawn Brancheau, in a horrible incident that the powers that be quickly tried to spin as the cause of human error. But a spot of digging into Tilikum’s past reveals a history of death that came to be due to the practices of parks like those in which he’s spent almost his entire life. From the hunts that broke up orca pods to the inadequate tanks they were stored in when they weren’t performing, it was only a matter of time before these majestic and amazingly intelligent creatures would eventually fight back after years of such mistreatment. But worst yet was not only SeaWorld’s knowledge of these events but the cover-ups that followed, their attempts to deflect blame onto innocents and away from the policies that allow this vicious circle to continue.

Blackfish is not the film to hit up for a fair and balanced view on its subject. This is an angry beast, an uneasy watch that presents the hard facts but offers few direct answers as to how to incite change. It simply recounts the terrible timeline that led to Brancheau’s demise and infuriatingly poses the question of why no one changed anything sooner. The number of talking heads (consisting mostly of former trainers) speaking ill of the “animals for entertainment” enterprise outweigh those who have faith that establishments like SeaWorld could still be forces for good. Blackfish features little in the way of opposing mindsets (SeaWorld declined to be interviewed), but any way you slice it, removing those like Tilikum from the wild to wave and splash water at kids is far removed from the notion of animal conservation that a rebuttal might claim in order to save face. The movie is pure expose from start to finish, and if someone doesn’t leave pissed off, it hasn’t done its job.

Certainly, Blackfish has an agenda, but it’s one that’s hard to argue against. One cannot see the image of captive orcas — with their dorsal fins collapsed, movements sluggish, and living quarters cramped — contrasted against that of their natural beauty in the wild and think that the former is okay. The sadness of the whole affair really runs deep, especially after we witness the insulting behavior of SeaWorld, whose claims of Brancheau’s death being her own doing come to conflict with witness testimony. Yes, Blackfish could have provided some light at the end of its gloomy tunnel, but it’s as dark as it is because it views its audience as reasonable human beings who should know what steps to take next. It can be a bleak piece of work, but the imparted information is compelling enough on its own to prompt audiences into taking action.

A potent marriage of horrifying facts with beautiful imagery, Blackfish makes for one of 2013’s most startling pictures. Though the near-complete absence of rosiness and levity will be a turn-off to many, the good that will undoubtedly be inspired by learning the harsh reality behind SeaWorld’s wholesome façade will be worth it in the long run. Blackfish sets out to boil the blood, and be you an animal lover or not, it’ll only be a few minutes before yours starts to percolate.