“Blackfish” Rhetorical Analysis
By: Eva Altman
Director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite worked with CNN Films to produce the 2013 documentary, “Blackfish.” Cowperthwaite made this documentary in response to the events surrounding the court case involving SeaWorld’s killer whales to inform people who were not aware of the issue. Throughout the film, Cowperthwaite conveys the argument that SeaWorld treats killer whales cruelly by keeping them in captivity. She also argues that captivity causes killer whales to become aggressive, causing the death of former trainer Dawn Brancheau. She uses a blunt and serious tone to inform her audience of the aggression between SeaWorld’s whales and former whale trainers. Cowperthwaite believed that once the American public learned of the events that happened at SeaWorld, including the mistreatment of whales and the deaths of employees, they would be motivated to discontinue their support for SeaWorld.
Cowperthwaite begins the documentary by juxtaposing a call to 911 and footage of a successful whale show. This 911 call occurred after an orca whale named Tilikum attacked and killed a SeaWorld trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in 2010. Former SeaWorld trainer, Samantha Berg, later reflects, “[Dawn] had so much experience that it made me realize that what happened to her really could have happened to anyone.” This juxtaposition appeals to the audience’s emotions by instilling empathy and compassion for the deceased trainer. This strategy also introduces the claim that keeping whales in captivity causes aggression.
Throughout the film, Cowperthwaite uses many testimonials of former SeaWorld employees and affiliates. One particular interview stood out from the rest in support of Cowperthwaite’s claim. John Crowe, a former diver and whale hunter, worked with SeaWorld in 1970 to capture young, wild orcas. In his interview, he gives vivid details of his experience, eliciting feelings of empathy for the whales he captured, one of these whales later being named Tilikum. Crowe admits, “you understand what you’re doing… just like kidnapping a little kid away from his mother… I didn’t even think about it being illegal…” This strategy uses an ethical and emotional appeal that prompts viewers to agree with the argument that SeaWorld’s actions harmed killer whales, Tilikum, in particular.
Cowperthwaite focuses on Tilikum throughout the film to demonstrate SeaWorld’s poor handling of killer whales. She devotes several segments of the documentary to the aggression he experienced while in captivity with other whales. Cowperthwaite includes many close-up images and video clips of Tilikum being attacked by other whales and his subsequent injuries. One of these video clips shows a bleeding gash in Tilikum’s side caused by another orca. These visuals convey the message that Tilikum suffered because he was kept in such close proximity to other whales, unlike whales in the wild. This strategy creates an emotional appeal and evokes empathy for Tilikum. Neuroscientist, Lori Marino, explains, “there’s hyper-aggression, a lot of violence, a lot of killing in captivity that you don’t ever see in the wild.” Marino’s comments support the visuals with logic, helping viewers understand that SeaWorld caused their killer whales to suffer, which in turn, caused SeaWorld employees, families, and friends to suffer.
Cowperthwaite argues that SeaWorld’s captivity of orca whales caused the injury and deaths of many former SeaWorld employees, leading to the court case between SeaWorld and OSHA. She includes several segments dedicated to the deceased trainers and their families during the documentary. Cowperthwaite uses video clips of orcas attacking their trainers and interview with family members and friends to add an emotional appeal to her argument: SeaWorld’s captivity of orca whales leads to aggression among the whales, which affects the people who work with those whales. Howard Garrett mentions, “there has been no record of any orca doing any harm to a human in the wild.” This strategy prompts viewers to ask themselves if the deaths of trainers and whales alike could have been avoided if SeaWorld refrained from capturing killer whales.
Finally, the documentary ends by juxtaposing wild orca whales and the whales at SeaWorld. Cowperthwaite uses this strategy to leave viewers feeling inspired to make a change and seek justice for captive whales. Her use of emotional and ethical appeals emphasizes her call to end the violence perpetuated by SeaWorld. Because of the strength of her argument, Cowperthwaite has the ability to persuade the general public to stand up against the injustices caused by SeaWorld.