Netflix Sports Doc Untold: Malice at the Palace Thoughtfully Re-Examines an Infamous Event

Untold: Malice at the Palace asks the viewer to reconsider the legacy of the eponymous brawl. On 19 November 2004, the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons got into a shoving match which escalated into a riot at Detroit’s Palace at Auburn Hills. Through a series of interviews with players, sportscasters, fans, and security officials, new light is shed on the now legendary event.

Commentators, mostly white and middle-aged, were quick to put the blame entirely on the players by calling into question the character of an entire generation. These are the images that open the film. On grainy analogue recordings, we hear media professionals label the players of the so-called “hip-hop generation” thugs.

Director Floyd Russ first offers a counterpoint to this narrative by letting a few of the players involved introduce themselves. Jermaine O’Neal, who played centre for the Pacers, recounts his childhood growing up in a South Carolina that still flew the Confederate Flag over the state house. In a sense, his is the sports story by which many comfort themselves. Through hard work and dedication, he carved a path into the elite echelons of the National Basketball Association. Conventional wisdom suggested that he would take over the leadership role left open after the retirement of Reggie Miller, certainly one of the greatest players to never win a title.

In many ways, Reggie acts as a counterbalance to the other players we hear from. He’s from an older generation, one with which the mainstream was evidently more comfortable. Despite his long-standing feud with Spike Lee, Reggie, who is now himself a commentator, is soft-spoken in a way that the white newscasters yearning for the days of MJ and Magic must have in mind when they imagine the NBA.

Against this old guard enters Ron Artest, a confrontational presence in the tradition of Dennis Rodman. However, Artest, who has since changed his name to Metta World Peace, never attained the level of hype awarded to the tabloid-darling of Chicago Bulls fame. The accepted account suggests it is Artest who ignited the brawl that engulfed the Palace. He was later suspended for the rest of the season in what Commissioner David Stern emphatically confirms was a 1-nil landslide.

Artest speaks with an emotional honesty not generally afforded to professional athletes. It is through his presence that the film begins to show the shades of nuance absent from Sportscenter-style soundbites. He discusses his struggles with depression and anxiety, which necessitated the team traveling with a psychiatrist. It is this acknowledgement of the toll mental health takes on athletes that makes the documentary so timely. His lying atop the scorer’s table after the shoving match with Pistons’ centre Ben Wallace, a now fateful image, was his way of separating himself from an overly stimulating situation. It is in this consideration that the film becomes important. We must ask ourselves what it is we expect from our athletes. More importantly, we must wonder why we don’t hold spectators to the same standard.

Russ also paints a picture of the behind-the-scenes operations that go into staging such a large public event. He gives prominent space to Timothy Smith, who, at the time, was Director of Operations at the Palace. Tim is introduced to us recounting the decision to revoke the season ticket of a fan who had been acting out. This is something we aren’t generally in a position to consider. Much like the fan, who we later learn is Charles Haddad, we consider our ticket a free pass to do what we want within the confines of the arena. It was a fan, John Green, who threw the cup that fired Artest into the stands. Yet, it’s Artest who’s labelled a thug. It’s later said that Commissioner Stern had to blame the players to save the league, or else risk alienating the fans. And this is where we should begin to put pressure on the popular relationship to professional sports. The talking heads that open the film suggest the players involved are nothing other than prima-donnas unused to being told “no.” This formulation is just as, if not more, applicable to the fans seated in the bleachers. As the Pacers are being escorted from the court, fans rush from all over the arena to dump food and drinks on their heads. Model behaviour from the American consumer.

Though there are a few loose strands, Untold: Malice at the Palace is an expertly crafted piece of documentary filmmaking. The slow accumulation of details makes the case, as players and others involved are given room to speak for themselves. The official narrative, to say nothing of the collective memory, of the Malice at the Palace is put into question in a way that forces the viewer to reframe one’s own relationship both to professional sports and to those spinning headlines out of professional sports.

Untold: Malice at the Palace is on Netflix now.

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