Lock Up Your Shamu Dolls and Proudly Boycott All Things SeaWorld: A Review of Blackfish
I was the little girl who at six or seven years old sat in the bleacher seats at SeaWorld with a neon pink fanny pack strapped to my waist, disposable camera in my hand (wind, wind, click. Wind, wind, click), sunburned shoulders, and a grin on my face almost as wide as the tails of the creatures I was gazing at. Wide-eyed and entranced, I’d watch the sea life in awe—the funny-faced beluga whales, the laughing dolphins, the clowning sea lions. I loved the splash, the spectacle, the enormity of the animals, but most of all I loved the killer whales.
Free Willy was my first favorite movie. In the film, the bad guys after Willy were cruel, diabolical, and villainous. Not like SeaWorld. SeaWorld was different. SeaWorld whales were happy, right?
One of those happy whales I saw as a seven-year-old at the Orlando SeaWorld clutching my Shamu doll was Tilikum. Tilikum—the biggest whale. Tilikum—the biggest splash. Little did I know that Tilikum was also a bullied, soon to be three-time murderer. That part was kept hidden. His smile, size, and tongue sticking out sold a lot of Shamu dolls and there in the spotlight Tilikum stayed.
Now, Tilikum has a new role to add to his résumé— unconventional star of the summer’s eeriest murder documentary, but in this case, the tables are turned. Tilikum, the murdering whale, is not the sinister villain cloaked in black dishing out poisonous apples. SeaWorld is. And instead of apples, they give out Shamu dolls, splashes, and smiles on seven-year-olds’ faces unaware of the horror that looms behind the curtain.
Luckily, we have Gabriela Cowperthwaite to do the unveiling. In her documentary, Blackfish, she tells the tale of Tilikum’s life in captivity—from baby, to bullied, to murderer—all the while condemning money-hungry SeaWorld for its total lack of ethics and value of life for both the whales they hunt, buy, and raise, as well as their trainers who blindly trust they’re doing what’s best for the beautiful creatures they love. What Cowperthwaite achieves with her film will take your breath away as it shocks you. Let’s just say if I knew where my Shamu doll was I’d lock it up out of shame for owning it, for giving SeaWorld a shred of my parent’s money, and for feeding the fire that SeaWorld has successfully swept under the rug again and again—until now.
Cowperthwaite’s argument is sound and well evidenced. Focusing on the trainers who’ve dedicated their lives to the killer whales, the film starts with them. For each, the story is the same—they were enthralled with the majesty of the whales at a young age, were determined to become whale trainers, and quickly found to their delight that the job required little education or training. A winning personality and the ability to swim fast being the only real requirements for the job.
For sympathy, and to immediately place the audience on the side of the trainers, Cowperthwaite pulls real emotion from the interviewees—lots of tears, lots of shock and awe at what they’d been manipulated to do, and lots of worry for the whales they’ve left behind.
This sympathy method is used throughout—countless instances of experts crying at what they saw and what they did for SeaWorld. It’s an effective ploy and for the most part Cowperthwaite doesn’t abuse the tactic—the events really are that emotional and that jarring. With or without a crying expert, it’s hard to see what was done to these whales and trainers without becoming emotionally invested yourself. Cowperthwaite piles on the facts and instances supporting her claim that SeaWorld has no value for life and will do anything for money and to maintain their shiny image. It just so happens that the majority of the people interviewed are sobbing through their walk down memory lane.
Rounding out her evidence, Cowperthwaite speaks to whale experts who insist that in nature killer whales live longer, gentler lives. Their dorsal fins stand tall in the wild. In the wild, they live the life spans of humans. In the wild, they can flee. Cowperthwaite juxtaposes these facts with images of bubbly SeaWorld trainers wrongly insisting again and again, to crowds of SeaWorld patrons, that 25-35 years is the average life span for the killer whales and that they live longer in captivity. Bold faced lies.
What Cowperthwaite gently is able to imply is why any whale might snap. Of course we can’t ask Tilikum what led him to kill, but we see his holding cell. We see the bleeding welts on his skin from the bullying whales. We see where the whales spend their nights and many hours of the day. Of course, a whale would snap. Each and every day doing redundant tricks for some dead fish only to be locked in a cell at night with a bunch of other misfit whales—not their kin, separated from their families like a bunch of orphans? Wouldn’t you snap? Cowperthwaite’s interviewees mention again and again that Tilikum was “frustrated”, one even suggests that he’s “psychotic” but Cowperthwaite knows she can’t prove these facts, so she simply shows us images of the conditions and allows the audience to infer for themselves.
For the assertions Cowperthwaite can prove, she layers on countless evidence like the cheese, sauce, noodle pattern when cooking lasagna. Cowperthwaite has court documents from the OSHA lawsuit following the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, graphics, flow charts, ironic SeaWorld commercials, and varying news reports on each SeaWorld tragedy depicting how quickly and swiftly SeaWorld would scramble to cover up any incident.
Cowperthwaite’s claim? These accidents were not trainer error as reported. These accidents were not the whales’ faults either, but a result of the extreme conditions both the whales and the trainers were subjected to in order to make a buck.
This layering of evidence creates a reaction in the audience. Three times during the film, the audience in the theater I was in had audible reactions. Once with laughter at the ridiculous claim of one of the interviewees who insisted, passionately, that he couldn’t fathom a world without a SeaWorld-type park. Once with giggles and whispers when, in Cowperthwaite’s procreation section highlighting the monetary value of Tilikum’s sperm, a trainer clutches a whale’s penis like a fire hose. And finally with sighs and silent tears when a trainer recounts the reaction of a mother whale crying out in frequencies they had never heard, desperately trying to reach her baby for hours and hours that SeaWorld had just stolen from her and shipped to another park.
My only major fault with the film is when Cowperthwaite takes the emotion too far, when she loses confidence in the sound argument she has. Yes, we’re invested. Yes, we believe you that SeaWorld sucks. Yes, you got us with the crying mama whale. In an unnecessary aside, the film meanders to another venue—Loro Parque in Spain—SeaWorld’s backwash of a marine-park complete with a cheaper, dirtier grounds and less skilled trainers. There we are told Alexis Martinez’s story by his fiancé and his mother. Alexis is brutally killed by one of the whales shortly after becoming a trainer and quickly rising up the ranks. It’s a tragedy that shouldn’t be downplayed, but Cowperthwaite uses it to rattle the audience even more, make us more emotional, and therefore cause us to plunge deeper into hating SeaWorld. His fiancé and mother describe receiving calls that there was an accident at the park and recount being led into the room to view his body with extravagant adjectives and details between tears. Does the trauma of this event make the fact that a whale killed him and the park tried to make light of it any more true? Do we need the drawn out tale of walking towards his body, of the brutal condition of his chest and limbs? They’re trying to make us cry. We feel for the family of course, but making us feel sadder and therefore hate SeaWorld more is the film’s one cheap ploy. You already had us with the facts. We don’t need more sadness drilled into us to win us over.
Cowperthwaite wasn’t confident enough in what she had or she would have omitted that scene. She should trust what she has; her case is resolute. Still, there’s no arguing against her passion for the subject. Her documentary doesn’t do anything stylistically innovative. The infographs are strictly graphics plastered on the screen. There’s nothing too ground-breaking with the editing or even the format. We go from interview to interview to tears, interview to interview to tears, but the film doesn’t need all those bells and whistles in order to make a convincing argument. The subject is strong enough to carry this important film.
Cowperthwaite effectively guarantees that SeaWorld’s PR team is going to have to resort to extreme measures to win back the droves of patrons who will likely choose another park to go to this summer. Maybe the seven-year-olds won’t be amazed at the enormity of the animals they watch leaping into the air, maybe Cowperthwaite has ruined that experience for many of us, but she’s creating better lives for the trainers who love the animals and for the killer whales themselves whose lives can be so much bigger than a couple hundred square feet tank. Thanks to Cowperthwaite, we know when we clutch our tiny Shamu dolls exactly what we’re paying for. And the truth shouldn’t sit well with anyone by the time the credits roll.
Posted on July 26, 2013, in Film Reviews :: Young and Old, The A's and tagged Alexis Martinez, Blackfish, Boycott, critic, critique, Dawn Brancheau, death, documentary, Free Willy, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, killer whale, long review, Loro Parque, murder, orca, Orlando, OSHA, SeaWorld, Shamu, Tilikum, trainer, unethical. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.