Following the wave of animal rights films like The Cove, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish serves to reaffirm much of the previously digested atrocities with visceral tenacity. Stylized and well-crafted, Blackfish illuminates discussion on the mistreatment of orcas in captivity. Denoting the psychological trauma that killer whales endure, with specific citations made against Sea World, Cowperthwaite’s film looks to illicit awareness among the general public. But in isolating her effort, Cowperthwaite’s plea for awareness comes across as brash and angry against a singular corporate entity. Harboring such flagrant disdain proves to be Blackfish’s undoing as Cowperthwaite proves to be unwilling or incapable of dissecting the larger socioeconomic concerns that surface as the film moves forward.
Why is it that Blackfish failed to provoke a reaction from me whereas the similar-minded The Cove did? It extends to the broad social circumstances in which the events of The Cove reached. The Cove’s study on Japan’s culture of hunting for dolphins provoked concern for the implications of mercury poisoning that came from their consumption. With this issue spanning over all social classes, the critical human element is prevalent throughout Louis Psihoyos’ film.
Now consider where Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish is coming from. There’s a deep-rooted focus in the film on the animal, on the orca’s trainers (the documentary utilizes the death of a young trainer as a means to springboard the narrative), and on Sea World’s practices. But the spectator is absent from discussion entirely. A destination for vacationers, Sea World’s role in contemporary society is something of a middle-class circus act. With Blackfish providing ample talking-head interviews from trainers who dawdle on the details of loving their killer whales, featuring such interviews registers as a bit too precious and over-the-top. Perhaps because this is a film geared toward the problems of a middle-class social group that are too overtly concerned with a cause of well, meager importance. I’d hate to create some sort of hierarchy of social concerns here, but the harmful practices against orcas who are used to entertain a specific class of people doesn’t register much of a blip on my radar. As heartless as that may sound, Blackfish’s single-minded rhetoric doesn’t really dissuade that perspective.
Blackfish does make an interesting case study on the trainers themselves, particularly in relation to their bosses. As trainer deaths and injuries mounting, Sea World’s response allocates blame to trainer error. Incapable of predicting the behavior of these large beasts, this response is obviously ridiculous, therein necessitating legal recourse for the trainer’s rights. It’s the most critical social concern the film tackles, but it’s one only illuminates how haphazardly Cowperthwaite constructs her film. Blackfish’s failure stems from a potpourri of ideas that rarely connect to a human experience – worst of all, all these ideas are presented on black-and-white terms with little room for critical thought.