Nominated for Nothing: 'Blackfish'

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Just about every year, brilliant movies are utterly ignored by the Oscars. The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Breathless, King Kong, Casino Royale, Touch of Evil, Caddyshack, Mean Streets, The Big Lebowski, Shame — the Academy has a long history of overlooking comedies, action movies, horror flicks, hard-boiled genre pics, artsy foreign films, and documentaries that aren’t about World War II. This year, we’ll be taking a closer look at films that were too small, too weird, or perhaps simply too awesome for the Academy Awards. These are the Non-Nominees.

The Film: Blackfish, a gripping documentary about the devastating consequences of keeping orcas in captivity — especially as performing attractions at theme parks like SeaWorld. Though the Academy snubbed the film, it’s been as popular with audiences as it was with critics; Blackfish was the third-highest-grossing documentary of 2013 that didn’t star One Direction or Justin Bieber. (The only docs that out-earned it, 20 Feet From Stardom and The Gatekeepers, both got Best Documentary Feature nods, the former this year and the latter in 2013.) Huge numbers of people — 21 million in total, over multiple airings — have also watched Blackfish on CNN.

Why It Wasn’t Nominated: Clearly, Blackfish aspires to be more than a movie. Its thesis states that orcas are highly intelligent, social animals who grow depressed and, in some cases, psychotic when held in what amount to large saltwater bathtubs; its official website includes a section titled “Take Action,” which encourages horrified viewers to learn more about orca conservation. And as a catalyst for change, it’s been pretty successful: SeaWorld protests are on the rise. Several high-profile musical acts, including the Beach Boys, Trisha Yearwood, and Pat Benatar, have canceled performances at SeaWorld and affiliated park Busch Gardens in the doc’s wake. SeaWorld has also felt financial ramifications, including dropping attendance and slumping stock prices. (Shares rose, however, the same day Blackfish failed to garner an Oscar nom, which hardly seems like a coincidence.)

Historically, the Oscars have had nothing against docs with an agenda to push: In the past 10 years, whistleblowers including GaslandSicko, Super Size Me, and Food, Inc. have all been nominated for the genre’s biggest prize. The Cove, which covers material similar to that of Blackfish — its star is a former dolphin trainer-turned-activist — even won Best Documentary Feature at the 82nd Academy Awards. In Blackfish‘s case, however, the film’s message seems to have overshadowed the film itself. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite said as much in a recent Los Angeles Times interview, noting that voters may have seen her film less as a work of art than as “art doing work.”

There’s also the matter of the film’s construction: “A lot of times, the documentaries that do well have a lot of original footage, and a lot of the footage in Blackfish is archival,” Cowperthwaite tells the Times. “I wanted this to be an airtight document that could be launched out there and do work in spite of me, without filmmaker craft — a fact-based narrative that could do good work in the world.” It’s an understandable goal, even a noble one — but perhaps “filmmaker craft” is something the Academy weighed more heavily than Blackfish‘s meticulous research or message.

Why History Will Remember It Better than Philomena: Mainly, because of the profound effect Blackfish has had and continues to have on the orca entertainment market — despite SeaWorld’s best efforts. Since its release last summer, the park has been waging an aggressive campaign against the movie, attempting to refute its claims with everything from full-page newspaper ads and op-eds to letters sent directly to film critics and a lavish new webpage — SeaWorld.com/truth — dedicated solely to bringing Blackfish down. “The one thing that I want people to know after watching the movie is that it’s not true,” trainer Holly Byrd says in one of the site’s testimonial videos. It appears above an article titled “Why Blackfish is Propaganda, not a Documentary.” It’s unclear whether all this damage control can repair the park’s reputation — but as long as SeaWorld keeps talking about Blackfish, the film will stay in the news and on people’s minds.

Perhaps more importantly, Cowperthwaite’s work isn’t just a message movie — it’s a beautifully made, heartbreakingly told narrative that inspires profound despair and righteous anger in equal measure. The lion’s share of Cowperthwaite’s footage may be archival, but it’s deftly deployed. Her filmmaking itself is remarkably restrained, especially considering both Blackfish‘s subject matter and the gimmickry that often comes with agenda-pushing docs. (See: Moore, Michael.) Cowperthwaite and her team should also be commended for convincing so many former orca trainers to speak on the record, which can’t have been easy.

Maybe the Oscars simply care more about human stories than animal rights; maybe 20 Feet From Stardom took the Best Documentary Feature category’s only “commercial hit” spot; maybe a majority of voters believe SeaWorld’s side of the story. Regardless, Blackfish is as breathtaking as a killer whale leaping into the air — and it certainly deserved the Academy’s consideration.


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