(Magnolia Pictures)
Tili takes a (bittersweet) bow.
(Magnolia Pictures)

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s awareness doc Blackfish makes a compelling argument to not place orcas in captivity.  Opening with the death of beloved SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau at the jaws of killer whale Tilikum, the film then leaps back to the animal’s youth and ably investigates what went wrong.  Through copious interviews with those who’ve worked with Tilikum and experts who expand on the nature of orcas, viewers come to feel horrible for Tilikum, a clear victim of his environment at the hands of greedy owners.  So, yes, mission accomplished on the filmmakers’ part content-wise, but cinematically the work is little more than standard non-fiction.

 (Magnolia Pictures)
Ex-Trainers: The Movie
(Magnolia Pictures)

In terms of stating her case, Cowperthwaite knows how to spin a powerful yarn.  Disillusioned ex-SeaWorld trainers convey the genuine love once held for their jobs and which continues for their former animal co-workers.  Looked upon as experts by the theme park’s attendees, they now freely admit minimal knowledge about killer whales, which the true authorities are happy to provide.  Through passionate insight from orca researcher Howard Garrett on the beasts’ kindness in nature and neuroscientist Lori Marino on their intelligence, social nature, and emotional maturity, an authentic picture emerges.  Paired with refreshing sights of orcas in their rightful habitat and the overarching concept of no documented case where an orca has harmed a human in the wild, and the concept of keeping these creatures free becomes common sense.

 (Magnolia Pictures)
Cue the Andy Williams: Bornnnn Freeeee!
(Magnolia Pictures)

SeaWorld’s direct absence despite being asked to partake makes for a one-sided discussion, though evidence of the company’s involvement in such matters are damning.  Fittingly, it’s in some of these instances that Blackfish flexes its imaginative muscles.  Forced to improvise in depicting OSHA’s case against SeaWorld that stemmed from Brancheau’s death, the filmmakers make dialogue between lawyer and witness thrilling by simply displaying both quotes at once.  Later uses of straightforward courtroom animation, sans audio, with the words appearing next to each respective figure are further engaging and, along with a clean drawn depiction of an orca capture, show signs of distinction.  Still, that’s about as flashy as things get.

Jeff Ventre and Sam Berg (Voice of the Orcas)
Jeff Ventre and Sam Berg return to the scene of the crime.
(Voice of the Orcas)

Interspersed with SeaWorld promotional videos that look asinine next to the facts, Blackfish grows all the more tragic when discussing Tilikum’s degrading mind and his current whereabouts.  In perhaps its grand message, the film renders sympathetic viewers into potential doers and rallies support around a problem that, with the right amount of support, could be fixed.  (Also, in a matter crucial to his predicament, if you’ve ever wanted to see an orca penis, get ready.  Free Willy, indeed.)  For this end and other highs along the way, Cowperthwaite clearly has the gift of storytelling.  Now, if she could get a little more help for her filmmaking to rise above the documentary masses, she’d be set.

Grade: B

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements including disturbing and violent images.

Blackfish is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8OEjYquyjcg]



  1. Pingback: The Week in Film: Above the Law edition

  2. Don’t watch Orcas. Eat them! (They would eat us given the chance.)

  3. For another look at Marine Mammal Research check out:


    An excellent non profit dedicated to saving dolphins and whales from capture, hunting, and abuse

  4. I am so pleased to see that this movie is in Asheville. I hope those who have the opportunity to see it on the big screen will do so, but want to let folks know that it will also be shown on CNN on October 24, at 9 p.m.

    In the wild, orcas swim upward of 100 miles per day. In captivity,they are forced to swim in tiny circles to amuse tourists. They spend their lives in concrete tanks that are the equivalent of a human in a hottub or small swimming pool. Babies are taken from their mothers and sold or transferred to other parks, destroying important maternal bonds. Captive orcas live only a fraction of their average life span. The more people learn about animals, the more likely they will not support captivity and the accompanying abuse with their entertainment dollars.

    Circuses do to land animals what “marine mammal parks” do to animals that live in water. The training of elephants is horrific, see for yourself at http://www.ringlingbeatsanimals.com/. Big cats like lions and tigers are kept in tiny cages when, in nature, they roam vast expanses. Zoos may not force animals to perform, but they also confine them to lives of boredom, remove them from their families, and often sell them to “canned hunting ranches” when they get old so that they can replace them with cute babies that will draw crowds.

    It’s the 21st century and time for us to stop abusing animals for our entertainment. It is ironic that it is people’s professed love or admiration for animals that often makes them want to see animals in captivity, which perpetuates the cycle of abuse. Why not watch nature videos showing animals exhibiting normal behavior in their natural habitats?

    As Alice Walker said, “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.”

    Dick Gregory wrote “When I look at animals held captive by circuses, I think of slavery. Animals in circuses represent the domination and oppression we have fought against for so long. They wear the same chains and shackles.”

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