Overview: Blackfish is a startling and unsettling exposé of SeaWorld and the very idea of captivity. It’s also an example of viewer manipulation at its finest. Magnolia Pictures; 2013; Rated PG-13; 83 minutes.
The Blackfish High: When I first saw Blackfish, I was incredibly moved by the cause. Like most who watched the movie, I immediately became convinced that captivity of these aquatic creatures is evil and SeaWorld needs to be destroyed as soon as possible. I told everyone I knew to watch the film, and I know that I’m not the only one who felt this way. One of my close friends, a college student who admittedly has never cared about “these sorts of issues” before, wrote a passionate letter that she intended to send to SeaWorld about the treatment of its animals. This is what Blackfish does. It takes hold and demands that you do something. After some time, I’m not as convinced of its cause as I once was. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize how discretely manipulative Blackfish is for viewers. That’s not to say that its message isn’t legitimate and action shouldn’t be taken, but the affecting tricks can’t be ignored.
The Issues: Blackfish revolves mostly around Tilikum, a performing killer whale that has killed three trainers. Using interviews and footage, the film highlights issues with keeping orcas in captivity. The footage, which is often shown with little or no context, is accompanied by dark, gradually rising music. Even when nothing happens, the score makes every moment feel intense. A portion of the film is dedicated to Dawn Brancheau, a SeaWorld trainer who was killed by a whale in 2010. Despite Brancheau’s strong presence in the film, her family has spoken out in subtle opposition to the story being told. Knowing their disapproval makes the film seem a little dishonest in its use of her death as a rallying point against SeaWorld.
Does That Matter?: In the end, does it matter at all if Blackfish manipulates its viewers? Maybe emotional manipulation is the point. There’s a chance people simply wouldn’t take notice of wrongdoing unless it’s set to dramatic music and extreme images. Perhaps the only way to inspire action is to tug at the heartstrings and make things look as dire as possible. Whether the facts are completely there or not, Blackfish is clearly a successful film. It has accomplished exactly what director Gabriela Cowperthwaite must have intended. People are talking about this issue. They’re speaking out. Every SeaWorld tweet and Facebook post is riddled with comments of harsh criticism. Bands are even refusing to play at the park. This documentary has done precisely what films like this strive to do: It has made a difference.
Overall: Without a doubt, watch Blackfish. This is a paramount issue and this film is the perfect way to open up conversation. But while watching, keep in mind that Blackfish is supposed to make you angry. So, watch Blackfish, take a breath, and do your own research too.