Though movie reviews are nothing more than specialized opinion columns, I normally avoid expressing views originating from personal, social and/or political philosophies. Why saddle a reader with personal baggage when it's supposed to be about the movie? But Blackfish, the captive-orca documentary making rough waves for the SeaWorld franchise and other marine mammal parks, is so strident an issue film that it forces a viewer's—and reviewer's—hand.
So here's mine: I'm a card-carrying member of PETA—People Eating Tasty Animals. I believe that humans have transcended the food chain and, because of that, have both the right to selectively use other animals and the responsibility to steward them. I believe that wild animals and their habitats must be preserved and advanced, and that domesticated animals warrant ethical treatment in their service to and companionship with humans. But I resist the argument that animals possess the social and emotional depths of humans, and the anthropomorphism often inherent in that argument.
As you might guess, these views put me a fair distance away from most animal-rights activists. So I went into Blackfish, a film that takes a deep dive into the 2010 death of veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau and parlays that investigation into a call to end orca captivity, with an oversized grain of salt.
As it turns out, the salt came in handyit made the crow I was served by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite go down just a bit easier.
Blackfish opens with the 911 call reporting Brancheau's death, then quickly shifts to an efficient, effective historical summation of orca captivity. Archival footage from the '70s depicts a fleet of orca hunters herding the animals in Puget Sound with boats, nets and explosives—a scene given a surreal edge by its uncanny resemblance to the fictional free-for-all in the seminal 1975 movie Jaws. An eloquent punctuation to this opening section comes from a contemporary interview with one of the whalers who engaged in the orca roundup—it's more than a bit uncomfortable to watch a bearded, grizzled mariner get choked up describing events that occurred more than 30 years prior.
But it's Blackfish's second act that really begins to put the screws to SeaWorld and other parks of its ilk. Interviews with a half-dozen or so former marine mammal trainers paint SeaWorld as an organization more than willing to hire patently unqualified park staff (though trainers went through a protocol before being allowed in the water with orcas, many were hired off the street with no biological or behavioral training whatsoever), to withhold critical information about the animals from those employees (specifically, about animals with a history of violent encounters with previous trainers), and to contain the naturally free-ranging animals in cramped quarters to prevent them, ironically enough, from being freed by animal activists.
By the time the story of Tilikum—the prized breeding male that killed Brancheau—rolls around, SeaWorld's pattern of manipulation, obfuscation and using the cloak of science to mask profit-driven decisions is laid bare. Marine biologists directly contradict the company lines regarding "normal" behavior and physiology of the animals. Archival and spectator-generated footage show, sometimes in graphic detail, a pattern of behavior from Tilikum and other orcas that, if heeded, would likely have prevented further trainer casualties, including the death of Brancheau.
SeaWorld's grossly misguided public-relations stance on Brancheau's death—after consulting with SeaWorld executives, a sheriff initially stated that Brancheau fell into the pool, when footage shows her clearly being pulled in by Tilikumis the final stroke that reveals the company as the entertainment- and profit-driven beast it is.
I came away from Blackfish with a greatly enhanced understanding of orcas, and a newfound respect for their social dynamics in the wild. I'm not ready to elevate them and other complex mammals to the same tier as humans, but I am convinced that operations like SeaWorld either need to undergo massive reforms or cease to exist.
Free Tilly! Well played, Blackfish.
Blackfish continues at the Wilma Theatre.