I wasn’t among the 50 film critics who received an email from SeaWorld’s publicists attacking Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s nature doc cum exposé “Blackfish” as “shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading and scientifically inaccurate.” But I have to confess that reading a newspaper account of the aquatic magic kingdom’s PR blitz made me awfully curious to see the movie.
Premiered earlier this year at Sundance and opening today at Lincoln Center, “Blackfish” is a slick, TV-style documentary that presents the 2010 death of an experienced SeaWorld trainer, Dawn Brancheau, as a deliberate attack by a disturbed captive male orca named Tilikum. There’s a sensational component to be sure, but the movie also makes strong, emotional muck-raking argument. Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair would be proud. Cowperthwaite not only questions the treatment of orcas or killer whales by SeaWorld (and other less well-known aqua parks) but, in a larger sense, her movie is a moral tract illustrating the cruelty inherent in all trained animal circuses, as well as zoos and aquariums. Of course, the fact that orcas are so obviously intelligent, emotionally developed, and seemingly self-aware creatures makes the nature of their captivity that much more painful. It’s hard not to conclude that SeaWorld is practicing a form of exploitation, if not slavery.
A smooth, somewhat repetitive mix of amateur movies, training films, news footage that includes an OSHA investigation (glad to see them on the case), and a generous helping of grandiose, mystifying SeaWorld TV spots, “Blackfish” is founded on the testimony of a half dozen former SeaWorld trainers. Talking about their relationship with “their” orcas, as well as the species in general, often brings them close to tears. That no one from SeaWorld agreed to speak to Cowperthwaite or indeed cooperate with her film may account for the trainers’ repeated attribution of negligence or mistreatment in the case of Brancheau and Tilikum to the mysterious “they.” The movie doesn’t name names, except in so far that the corporation SeaWorld is a person.
Actually, I believe that SeaWorld has good reason to fear this movie. Who is responsible for Dawn Brancheau’s death? Was it an act of God? (It really would be interesting to know the insurance pay-out.) The corporation, not surprisingly, seems inclined to blame the victim. But if not SeaWorld, is Tilikum then the perpetrator? Dogs and, as shown in the famous 1904 Thomas Edison actualité “Electrocuting an Elephant,” even circus pachyderms have been put down for killing humans. “Blackfish” makes the point that Tilikum, who was involved in two prior human deaths (!), is far too valuable a property to destroy — albeit valuable less as an entertainer (he seems to have been semi-retired, spending most of his time in orca “jail”) than as a sperm machine used to breed orcas in captivity.
Still, the lawyer in me can’t help but wonder what would happen if Tilikum was charged with a crime and put on trail. He might well be declared psychologically unfit — the documentary makes it clear that, despite his unusually large size, he suffered considerable bullying in his life. But there is also ample evidence that, given the extenuating circumstances under which Tilikum was raised and maintained, a Florida jury might well find that he acted in self-defense. Imagine the publicity that SeaWorld could reap from that: Tilikum, the Killer Whale who stood his ground!