Blackfish (PG-13) (83 min.) — This powerful, provocative documentary explores the 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, mauled and drowned by a performing orca named Tilikum. Not just that day's tragedy but circumstances years before, when humans planted a killing seed in Tilikum then ignored the whale's red flag behavior. Two deaths before Brancheau's weren't enough warning.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite creates a fascinating character study of Tilikum, part of a revered species without a single confirmed kill of a human in the wild. Captivity is where Blackfish's evidence continually points the blame for Tilikum's deadly behavior. SeaWorld is only the final stop on a personal voyage of trauma, from separation anxiety to destructive bullying by his own kind. The movie proclaims nurture, not nature, killed Brancheau.
Tilikum's path begins in a roundup of orcas, much like the corralled dolphin in The Cove, with the youngest sold to theme parks for training as entertainers. Tilikum is one, purchased by a cramped Canadian aquapark, Sealand of the Pacific. Punishment comes with the training, not at the hands of humans but other whales tearing Tilikum's hide when his mistakes cause delays in the feeding schedule. A monstrous attitude is being formed, like an abused juvenile delinquent.
After one trainer dies — Tilikum is an accomplice — the whale is sold to SeaWorld. Seven years later a trespasser dies in Tilikum's tank. Then Brancheau's death, and SeaWorld's reactions lead Blackfish into accusatorial mode with incriminating silence from the theme park. Central testimony criticizing SeaWorld's handling of Brancheau's death comes from former trainers and park personnel, so it's persuasive.
Blackfish is a zoological horror story, a corporate expose and a heartbreaking example of inhumane practices and predictable consequences ignored. It'll make you think twice about taking that 90-minute drive to Orlando for a day with Shamu, not because of the beautiful creature but a terrifying culture strangling it. A (Tampa Theatre)
Steve Persall, Times movie critic