The Blackfish Effect

“Everything Happens For a Reason”

This phrase applies to almost everything in life including documentaries. Everything, discreet and obvious, that appears in documentaries are there for a reason and have a purpose. All documentaries are also trying to persuade you one way or another.

Blackfish does a fantastic job of evoking emotions in all of its viewers. Blackfish is a 2013 American documentary film directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. It tells the story of Tilikum, an orca held by SeaWorld and the controversy over captive killer whales and other animals.

The film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival on January 19, 2013, and was picked up by Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films for wider release. “Unapologetically designed both to inform and affect, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s delicately lacerating documentary, “Blackfish,” uses the tragic tale of a single whale and his human victims as the backbone of a hypercritical investigation into the marine-park giant SeaWorld Entertainment” (NY Times).

This documentary did such an amazing job of pushing its agenda that in 2016 SeaWorld announced the current generation of orca whales would be their last.

"A whale has eaten one of the trainers...."

The opening scene of the film is a 911 call from SeaWorld about a person being killed by a whale.

From the very beginning of the film you know bad things are going to continue to happen. This opening scene sets the stage, a very eerie stage, for the rest of the film. Throughout the whole film the scenes differ from calm....

to chaotic.

One scene you are experiencing the bond between the whales and trainers and the next scene is yet another 911 call. Images and videos of whales in their natural habitat are often shown in comparison to the whales in captivity. The whales seem to be so graceful and majestic in nature but mean and disturbed in captivity. This allows viewers to connect to how beautiful the animals are in nature and feel bad for them because it is insinuated that when they are in captivity their quality of life goes down significantly. You instantly are “on the whale’s side” and wonder why they are in captivity in the first place.

An eyewitness shares that at Sealand the whales are stored in “modules” that are 30 by 20. It then pans to Jane Velez-Mitchell, a CNN anchor wondering “If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little psychotic?” This once again allows you to feel for the whales and connect with them.

"....and they're communicating back and forth."

The strategic sounds and choice of music in this documentary produce discreet rhetoric and “make you feel some type of way” without you even noticing. The documentary starts talking about how Tilikum is being moved from Sealand to SeaWorld and ominous music plays in the background. Without even realizing why viewers predict that something bad is going to happen at SeaWorld. The music draws you in and gives you an idea as to what is to come.

Several times throughout the film orca sounds are played in the background. For the most part they are discreet but they definitely pull at your heart strings. It makes you think that the whales are just like us because of how much we communicate with each other.

"We're only after the little ones"

The bond between mother and child is extremely powerful and everyone is aware of that. The documentary strategically plays on that idea more than once. More than once baby whales are being taken away from their mother. This breaks viewer’s hearts because everyone can imagine if they were ripped from their mothers arms as babies. Mothers are such a source of comfort for humans (and orcas) it is easy to connect with.

The makers of the film knew that and that is why they kept bringing it up. The mother orcas cry for their babies when they are taken away and one whale mom even grieved for her missing child for multiple days.

"She started to scream and she started looking around..."

Eyewitness accounts add a whole new element to documentaries. In Blackfish, countless numbers of interviews and eyewitness reports emotionally manipulate viewers. Trainer after trainer appear on the screen to tell their story whether it be about their bond between them and their whale or how they felt when they heard about or saw the whale attacks. They even have 2 women share the story of murder of one trainer at Sealand and explain how they felt.

Including this testimony was not done on accident. The filmmakers knew these kind of eyewitness reports could reach out to viewers. Some of the interviews are done with people who seem to be higher ups. As Michael Moore says “I have always found it much more interesting to try to talk to those in charge”. By showing people who seem to be in charge it makes you feel like you can believe them and they would never lie to you. By doing this the filmmakers make it seem like you are just listening to professionals speak the truth when in reality they are further pushing their agenda.

"Depressed is a passive emotion. Anger is active"

Because of the effective rhetoric in the film it lights view’s fires. As Michael Moore says “I don't want people leaving the theater depressed after my movies. I want them angry. Depressed is a passive emotion. Anger is active. Anger will mean that maybe 5 percent, 10 percent of that audience will get up and say, "I gotta do something. I'm going to tell others about this. I'm going to go look up more about this on the Internet. I'm gonna join a group and fight this!"

This documentary made people so angry it brought more awareness to the topic then SeaWorld would ever want. According to Daily Mail, SeaWorld reported a wider loss in its fourth quarter of $25.4 million. Attendance to the company’s 11 parks between October and December fell 2.2 percent to 4.4 million from 4.5 million in the same period a year ago.

A Revolution Has Begun...

This is what Lisa Lange, senior vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), calls the “Blackfish effect”. This movie started a revolution.This movie is the reason that, after this generation, no more orcas will be held captive at SeaWorld.

Works Cited

Blackfish. Dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Magnolia Pictures, 2013. DVD

"Michael Moore's 13 Rules for Making Documentary Films." Indiewire. N.p., 10 Sept. 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2016

Catsoulis, Jeannette. "Do Six-Ton Captives Dream of Freedom?" The New York Times. The New York Times, 18 July 2013. Web. 29 Mar. 2016.

Press, Associated. "The Blackfish Effect: SeaWorld Loses $25.4 Million after Documentary Criticizing Treatment of Killer Whales Cuts Park Attendance." Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 26 Feb. 2015. Web. 29 Mar. 2016.

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Blackfish Hitting the Waves. Digital Image. Theorcaproject.wordpress. Web. 29 March 2016

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“Blackfish”. Digital Image. CNN. Turner Broadcasting System. Web. 29 March 2016

Captive. Digital Image. CNN. Turner Broadcasting System. Web. 29 March 2016

Seaworld. Digital Image. Indiewire. Indiwire. Web. 29 March 2016

Captivity. Digital Image. Indiewire. Indiwire. Web. 29 March 2016

Whale. Digital Image. Indiewire. Indiwire. Web. 29 March 2016

Whale. Digital Image. CNN. Turner Broadcasting System. Web. 29 March 2016

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Blackfish. Digital Image. hollywoodreporter. THR. Web. 29 March 2016

Ending. Digital Image. hollywoodreport. THR. Web 29 March 2016

Orcas. Digital Image. hollywoodreport. THR. Web 29 March 2016

Blackfish. Digital Image. Theorcaproject.wordpress. Web. 29 March 2016

Blackfish on CNN. Digital Image. Theorcaproject.wordpress. Web. 29 March 2016

Comments. Digital Image. Theorcaproject.wordpress. Web. 29 March 2016


My goal in making this presentation was to share a rhetorical analysis of Blackfish in a more interesting way then just a word document. It is also to show what the movie is about and help push the agenda of the movie. I think that I did a pretty good job in doing this because if I were to see this presentation I would definitely agree with the movie or at least be more interested in the topic and look up more information on it. The part I struggled with was not sounding too much like a broken record. One of the reasons this documentary was so successful was because it made the same points multiple times so when I am writing about the movie it is hard not to sound repetitive.

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