Blackfish: The Documentary That Redefined The SeaWorld Legacy

Tilikum in a scene from BLACKFISH, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: Suzanne Allee.

When Blackfish was released in theaters back in 2013, it would forever change how people viewed SeaWorld and the park’s legacy.

I still remember my experience of watching this film for the first time in August 2013. That this film had an impact on me in the way it did is a testament to my love of orcas. I’ve been a fan of the majestic creatures that we call killer whales since watching the Free Willy movies. Watching this film again in 2023 (on Prime Video) still makes me question why orcas need to be in captivity for performance purposes. It’s one thing to briefly rehabilitate animals at a marine aquarium–this is how it should be. However, it’s another to hold them in captivity and have them performing on a daily basis.

This is a film that set ripples as soon as filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite premiered the documentary at Sundance that year. In a perfect world, it would have earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature. BAFTA got it right with their nomination. Ten years later, it’s the film that I feel is the best documentary of 2013, if not the most horrifying. It’s always something when there is an investigation into a company and they repeatedly decline interview requests. A company would never decline such interviews unless they have something to hide.

After being taken from his home off the coast of Iceland, Tilikum would make his way to SeaWorld from Sealand of the Pacific, initially to be a breeder. The orca would go onto father just over half of the SeaWorld orca population. However, they already knew about his issues with aggression when they took him in. When Dawn Brancheau died on February 24, 2010, it marked Tilikum’s third incident of attacking or killing a trainer. It would also forever change SeaWorld as we know it.

An investigation would follow the tragedy but none of the trainers or expert witnesses that Cowperthwaite interviews seem to buy the official SeaWorld line for as much as a minute. At least, none of the comments that appear in the final 83-minute running time. The company’s official line was that the whale pulled her by the pony tail. But when you listen to the trainers familiar with Dawn or the whale, you start wondering if there’s something missing. What details is SeaWorld leaving out? It would not be the first time where trainers found SeaWorld misleading them about events.

It’s not surprising to read about a backlash following the film’s release. Two trainers in particular distanced themselves from the film, presumably because it was not what they thought it would be. Or that their interviews were used in a different way. SeaWorld gave their own response, which serves as something of a counterpoint to the film. The company would even go on damage control as a result. Does it change my feelings on the movie? Hardly. This is clearly a film that knows what it is doing by using footage in such a shocking manner. It knows how the audience will react after viewing. In any event, the film’s impact on the company is stronger than any negative backlash. Both orca breeding program and live whale performances were phased out, starting in 2016.

The film would have an influence on other films, too, including both Finding Dory, Paper Towns, and Jurassic World. It’s always fascinating to see how documentaries inspire changes to Hollywood movies. It is also a testament to where Sea World sits in the popular culture.

That Blackfish led SeaWorld to phase out both orca breeding and performances speaks to how we should view the film’s legacy over ten years later.

DIRECTOR: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
SCREENWRITERS: Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Eli Despres
FEATURING: John Hargrove, John Jett, Carol Ray, Jeffrey Ventre, Samantha Berg

Magnolia Pictures released Blackfish in theaters on July 19, 2013. Grade: 4.5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.