This edition of Movies to Watch After… recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness as we recommend fans go back and learn some film history, become more well-rounded viewers, and enjoy likeminded works of the past, even if it’s the fairly recent past. As always, I try to point you in the easiest direction of where to find each of these highlighted titles.
Okay, you’ve had your fun. Looking for the perfect weekend binge, you tuned into Netflix’s Tiger King anticipating a docuseries about animal cruelty and captivity and you got a menagerie of wild humans on parade. Or maybe it was vice versa, though the limited series does not offer much in the way of the actual issues. What begins as a debate in the form of a rivalry about the ethical treatment of big cats and other animals becomes more of an unbelievable true-crime story without a lot of substance.
So, leave it to me, your resident add-on specialist and documentary enthusiast, to fill in the gaps with some essential films dealing with domesticated wild animals, private roadside zoos, preservation and conservation, and animal rights in general. Below, I also recommend some films about similarly eccentric human characters who are more or less respectively portrayed as relates to those in this seven-part chronicle of the war between Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin.
While Tiger King spotlights Americans battling over the right way to preserve species in some form of captivity, there are others in Asia fighting to keep tigers alive in the wild through conservation efforts. Tigerland follows subjects in Russia and India today but also looks back on the important work of the famous naturalist and tiger protector Kailash Sankhala. The characters have different approaches in their shared mission, which entails dangerous situations made evident by the film.
Tigerland was made by Ross Kauffman, who won an Oscar for co-directing Born Into Brothels, and again he’s particularly focused on human subjects. This isn’t exactly a nature film, though the tigers themselves do get their time to shine with scenes of the big cats out in the wild. They serve as a reminder of what is at stake and why the men in the film, including Sankhala’s grandson, Amit, are so passionate about keeping them in existence and properly in their environment.
Anyone watching Tiger King firstly for the animal rights aspect won’t be eager to watch Trophy, which is about big game hunters. But it’s also about animal conservation and how the money from regulated game reserve hunting in Africa goes toward protecting the animals overall. There’s also an activist in the film who cuts off rhino’s horns so that poachers can’t get them and profit from the ivory instead. The film presents a difficult question: is it okay to kill a few animals to save the greater number?
The rivalry at the center of Tiger King involves a similar yet less deadly (or less intently so) conundrum. The argument had between Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin concerns the exploitation of animals and how charging for the viewing, petting, and/or posing with the animals pays for the greater conservation of species done by roadside zoos and other private owners. Even Baskin, whose organization is supposed to be more of a rescue operation needs to exploit its big cats to a degree.
Unlocking the Cage (2016)
This final feature by documentary legend D.A. Pennebaker is another collaboration with wife and longtime co-director Chris Hegedus (The War Room) and deals with the concept of personhood status for non-humans. The main focus of Unlocking the Cage is on a lawyer and activist, Steven M. Wise, who specializes in animal protection and rights, and the Nonhuman Rights Project, which aims to legally declare self-aware animals (apes, elephants, cetaceans) as persons rather than property.
At the center of Unlocking the Cage is a lawsuit for a chimpanzee, and the documentary primarily concerns primates who’ve resided in roadside zoos and in people’s homes who’ve either been directly abused or at least have been poorly treated and cared for. Tiger King may mostly feature big cats, which are not considered among the autonomous species fought for by the NhRP, but the series also shows many apes in captivity, including those displayed like human children for amusement.
One of the most significant “issue films” of any kind as far as enacting great change in the world, Blackfish famously caused a huge decline in attendance of SeaWorld parks, which led to the company doing away with orca shows and breeding. The documentary also influenced a change to the ending of Pixar’s Finding Dory, which got a lot of attention, but the impact on both the awareness and the reality of orca captivity and the psychological problems with those animals specifically is its legacy.
Blackfish is not a perfect expose of an animal rights issue, though, at least for some activists as well as some documentary critics, because it’s still a very sensational film intended in appealing to a movie audience. Marketed somewhat like a horror release, Blackfish focuses on one particular “killer whale,” Tilikum, and the human deaths he caused while attempting to get tot he root of what led this serial killer to commit the murders. It’s not quite so narrativized as that, but thematically it plays as such.
Project Nim (2011)
Directed by James Marsh, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind Man on Wire, this near-equally perfect documentary follows the sad life story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who was both a part of a university project and sort of a member of a family back in the 1970s. He was subject of a study in language and taught ASL (and was partly the inspiration for the Virgil character in the 1987 drama Project X) until he was no longer of use to scientists or as a pet and had to be sent to a sanctuary.
Obviously, only the humans involved in the story can be the storytellers — and not just because Nim died a decade before the doc was made — and some of them are set up for scrutiny like the many characters of Tiger King, but ultimately this is a tragic biography of a chimp. As depicted like a person who is the victim of being abused physically and psychologically as a possession, Nim comes off as compared to a foster child, albeit one without the same recognized rights.
While many of the characters in Tiger King are likely happy for any kind of fame that the docuseries brings them, Carole Baskin is probably the one figure who probably expected to come out looking better than she does. At the start, she’s portrayed as not necessarily the hero of the story but maybe the “good guy” in the animal rights debate, at least as far as many activists and advocates for animals are concerned. In the end, though, she’s lumped in with the whole bunch of kooky characters.
The makers of Tiger King may not mean to encourage viewers to laugh at Baskin or anyone else in the series, but that’s still inevitable given its tone. Documentary characters shouldn’t be set up for such mockery, and that’s an issue that came up notably with the release of Errol Morris’ Tabloid, whose main subject in this story of kidnapping and sexual assault, Joyce McKinney, made a big stink (and filed a lawsuit) regarding her being made out to be a clown.
Whether she loved the attention, either way, is up for discussion. The same goes for Baskin, who loves to roll her eyes and otherwise go broad in her expression of innocence on camera. The fact that Baskin somewhat resembles McKinney and also is the subject of a scandal involving a romantic partner and also probably thought she was getting to defend herself properly makes Tabloid a nice pairing with Tiger King even if it has nothing to do with big cats or other wild non-human animals.
Crazy Love (2007) and The Cove (2009)
As far as Joyce McKinney believes, her story is more of a crazy romance than true crime, and she wouldn’t be the first to have a complex affair involving illicit elements, nor is she the first to have it all laid out in a documentary. Just look at Crazy Love, a feature co-directed by Tiger King executive producer Fisher Stevens (with Dan Klores). The film chronicles the lives of Burt and Linda Pugah, who got married after his 14-year prison sentence for paying to have her physically scarred and blinded by lye. Aside from the fact that Linda had been Burt’s ex-girlfriend at the time, it’s like if Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin wound up in love.
Stevens also produced The Cove, for which he won an Oscar, and maybe had more of a hand in the shaping of the documentary than director Louie Psihoyos. It documents the mass seasonal killing of dolphins, for their meat, in a specific Japanese cove and the activists trying to stop it. While Crazy Love relates to the human component of Tiger King, the animal rights stuff fits with The Cove, which like Blackfish was a huge success of nonfiction filmmaking and in the awareness of issues pertaining to endangered cetaceans — also see last year’s Sea of Shadows, which concentrates on the very nearly extinct vaquita. Also check out Psihoyos’ follow-up, Racing Extinction, which was also produced by Fisher and features Tiger King co-director Eric Goode for his role as the founder of his own conservation organization, Turtle Conservancy.
American Movie (1999)
The other notable executive producer attached to Tiger King is Chris Smith, who between the docuseries and last year’s Fyre, seems to have the Midas Touch with phenomenally popular Netflix releases. His most notable work, though, remains this documentary feature that became an instant cult classic. It’s about best friends Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank as they attempt to make an independent horror movie in Wisconsin in the mid-1990s.
American Movie is a product of its time — when eccentric people were a hot commodity for documentaries that mine their subjects for equal parts comedy and empathy. And in the tradition going back to such classics as Grey Gardens and the early work of Errol Morris, Smith’s film has been labeled as both exploitative and affectionate, the latter typically making up for the former in the best of these kinds of films. Tiger King, meanwhile, lacks the affection to balance out the mockery of its characters.
Usually, these lists consist mainly of narrative films along with one obligatory documentary. This edition pulls a switch by recommending mostly documentaries joined by this single narrative feature. Of course, the true story of Roar behind the scenes is what makes the movie so interesting. Its production involved a Hollywood family and their own imported big cats, which caused many very serious injuries on set, leading to the reputation of being “the most dangerous movie ever made.”
Directed by Noel Marshall and starring himself, his wife Tippi Hedren, step-daughter Melanie Griffith, and sons John and Jerry Marshall, Roar is considered as something of a home movie but does follow a plot in which a family and other characters are attacked by lions and tigers who on a Tanzanian nature reserve, which also is home to the family’s patriarch, who studies big cats by trade. If Joe Exotic had ever made a movie at his animal park, it might have been something like this crazy cult film. Watch the making-of documentary Roar: The Most Dangerous Movie Ever Made afterward.
Bring ‘Em Back Alive (1932)
Or maybe Joe Exotic would have wished to have a movie career like Frank Buck, the hunter and exotic animal collector who found enormous fame as an author and star of nonfiction and fiction films. Before becoming a celebrity, he was the first full-time director of the San Diego Zoo, but his ideas about the care of the animals clashed heavily with the board. Everyone is discussing the possibility of a Joe Exotic movie, despite Tiger King being sufficient. Well, Buck’s life would also make a good movie.
Bring ‘Em Back Alive was Buck’s first movie. Based on his own first bestselling book and a related NBC radio series, the documentary presents a number of relatively staged scenes involving snakes, tigers, panthers, crocodiles, and a baby elephant filmed during a trip to the Malayan jungle (and/or maybe a confined compound in Singapore). Mostly fights between animals, with the climax being a python versus a tiger. The film was a huge success for RKO and led to more docs and then fiction films starring Buck. In 1982, Buck was fictionally portrayed by Bruce Boxleitner in a short-lived adventure series on CBS of the same name based on his experiences and set in Malaya in the 1930s.
Buck is said to have been inspired by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper, best known for King Kong but also successful with earlier ethnographic and wildlife adventure documentaries Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925) and Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927), and the latter is another good example of Tiger King‘s antecedents. Even earlier, though, there was a short documentary in 1910 called Hagenbeck’s Menagerie, which spotlights another prominent figure in the histories of exotic animal trade and zoos, including being a pioneer of the awful idea of human zoos.