Smells Like ‘10s Spirit: How ‘Blackfish’ Epitomizes the Era of Hashtag Activism


“Smells Like ’10s Spirit” takes a look at the decade in movies through the lens of success stories only made possible by unique trends that emerged. This series explores ten films – one from each year of the 2010s – and a single social, economic or cultural factor that can explain why it made an impact or lingers in the collective memory. Each piece examines a single film that tells the larger story of the tectonic forces reshaping the entertainment landscape as we know it. In this edition: Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish, written by Cowperthwaite, Eli Despres, and Tim Zimmermann.

“We don’t do anything in San Diego in response to activists,” remarked SeaWorld’s CEO Joel Manby in 2015 as his company announced their plans to phase out their orca shows. “We do it because we have heard from our guests.” It’s not exaggeration to say that the 2013 documentary Blackfish orchestrated a true sea change (pun fully intended) in how SeaWorld conducted itself in the world. This feat, while possible in previous eras, came to pass largely because of tectonic shifts in the way audiences consumed and discussed and nonfictional narratives. Blackfish makes for a paradigmatic case for the era, too, showcasing both the potentials and the pitfalls of so-called hashtag activism.

The arc of cinema’s evolution is long, but it bends away from individualization and towards collective experiences. Yes, this even includes the shift from watching in cinemas to streaming’s dominance – people might not be viewing them in the same room together, but the globalization and centralization of content has had the effect of both expanding and extending the conversation. With the explosion of online communication tools – the percentage of Americans with a social media profile grew from 44% in 2010 to 63% by just 2013 – even a documentary can become an event. Especially when they hit a public nerve, the potential for them to serve as a locus for organizing and action has never been greater.