Blackfish is a documentary directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite that was released in 2013. After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, Blackfish was distributed for wider release by CNN Films and Magnolia Pictures.
The film focuses on the controversial topic of keeping killer whales in captivity, using the specific subject Tilikum, an orca that was held by the aquatic amusement park SeaWorld. Tilikum was captured in 1983 off the coast of Iceland, and according to the film has since been subjected to a great deal of harassment and abuse since his capture. Cowperthwaite points out in her film that the maltreatment Tilikum has experienced while in captivity has led to several incidents of aggressive behavior. Tilikum was responsible for the deaths of three separate individuals. Despite this, Tilikum continues to be featured in several of SeaWorld’s “Shamu” shows.
Cowperthwaite began working on Blackfish after the death of senior SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. While the claims at the time of Brancheau’s death argued that Dawn had been targeted by Tilikum because her hair was worn in a ponytail, Cowperthwaite felt there was more information surrounding this incident that was being covered up, and thus began to delve further into Brancheau’s death and the issue of killer whales at large.
One point that the film addresses is that the lifespans of whales in captivity are not comparable to the lifespans of whales in the wild, a claim that SeaWorld has made in the past and continues to make today. The film gathered its information from various sources, including former SeaWorld trainers as well as eye-witnesses to some of the whale’s violent attacks. A few of the former trainers interviewed in the film, Bridgette Pirtle and Mark Simmons, have come out with statements since the documentary’s release claiming that the final film was different than how it was presented to them originally. Dawn Brancheau’s family has also claimed that her foundation is not affiliated with the film, and expressed how they felt that the documentary did not accurately reflect Brancheau or her experiences at SeaWorld.
Blackfish has been received tremendously well by critics, scoring a 98% on the Rotten Tomatoes website, which stated that, “Blackfish is an aggressive, impassioned documentary that will change the way you look at performance whales.” The documentary also fared well at the box office, where it made $2,073,582 over the course of its 14-week release.
The film had a great deal of impact on the public at large, sparking a large volume of responses, including a backlash from those who question the accuracy of the film.
SeaWorld is the film’s biggest critic, as it is one of the primary targets that Blackfish addresses and is presented as being responsible for the maltreatment and abuse of the killer whales that it keeps in captivity. Since the documentary’s release, SeaWorld has openly responded to the claims made in Blackfish, asserting them as inaccurate. The organization released a statement saying, “Blackfish…is inaccurate and misleading and, regrettably, exploits a tragedy…the film paints a distorted picture that withholds…key facts about SeaWorld, among them…that SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns to the wild hundreds of animals every year, and that SeaWorld commits millions of dollars annually to conservation and scientific research.” Organizations including the Oceanic Preservation Society and The Orca Project have responded to and refuted SeaWorld’s claims.
Blackfish‘s impact extends even further, as it reportedly influenced Pixar’s animated film Finding Dory, the sequel to Finding Nemo, with Pixar altering their depiction of a marine park after seeing the documentary. Local legislators in New York and California have also proposed legislation since Blackfish’s release that would ban all entertainment-driven killer whale captivity.