Netflix Finds “Malice at The Palace”
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As of 2021, the NBA is one of the most-watched sports leagues in the world. With millions of viewers globally, there’s no doubt that basketball reaches people from all walks of life. And given players’ statuses as large public figures and role models, the NBA works hard to maintain a squeaky-clean image. But years ago, the league’s image could not have been more different. On November 19th, 2004, one of the most notorious events in NBA history took place: the Pistons-Pacers brawl. After losing to the Detroit Pistons at The Palace in Auburn Hills, Michigan, a fight broke out between Pacers’ small forward, Ron Artest (now known as Metta Sandiford-Artest), and Detroit’s Ben Wallace. What began as a scuffle between two players quickly evolved into a riot involving both fans and players that would go on to shape the NBA for years to come.
“Untold: Malice at The Palace,” the first of five installments in a sports docuseries, revisits that night through the lens of the players. The documentary narrows in on four Pacers––Reggie Miller, Jermaine O’Neal, Ron Artest, and Stephen Jackson––using their stories as the narrative framework for the film. From Miller’s quest to win a championship to Jackson’s beginnings with the Pacers, "Untold" doesn’t just chronicle the events of that unfortunate night, but widens the scope to look at the small and large-scale happenings preceding and following the November 2004 game.
"Untold" begins by introducing Jermaine O’Neal, Ron Artest (Metta Sandiford-Artest), and Pacers legend Reggie Miller. The interviews from each player provide viewers with an intimate understanding of the team’s success, their dynamic, and how the dynamic would take shape in the coming years. Hearing the first-hand accounts of the players makes the documentary personal and engaging in a way that a more detached narrative structure simply could not.
The story then zeroes in on Sandiford-Artest and the aftermath of the 2003-2004 series. In this sequence, the player openly discusses his challenges with mental health, achieving a harrowing transparency that most sports documentaries lack. Interspersed with testimonials of Miller, Jackson, and O’Neal’s experiences with Sandiford-Artest at the time, "Untold" effectively contextualizes the November 19 game by exploring key players’ feelings prior to the day.
The fallout following the night was brutal. Criticisms of the Pacers and the NBA as a whole were fueled by claims of a “thug mentality” becoming a part of basketball, calling the game a “hip-hop” sport. Juxtaposing news clips with interview segments, "Untold" offers some much-needed insight into the drastic differences between the media’s and players’ reception of the events. However, the film fails to explore the larger issues underlying the narrative spun by media outlets, leaving this segment feeling a bit anticlimactic. Though the players explain their reactions to being characterized as “thugs” and other discriminatory comments made by news outlets, “Untold” on the whole fails to address the racist culture at the root of these remarks. While there’s only so much you can do in 70 minutes, given the large impact media perception had on this event and the players, the film would benefit from discussing these statements in greater depth.
Beyond retelling the story of The Palace, "Untold" reassesses the event by taking an analytical, investigative approach to the events of the night. Featuring interviews from a county prosecutor and a detective, the film walks viewers through the police investigation of the event. The issue of racism, once again, underlies this segment—while the punishments doled out by the predominantly white NBA leadership, responding to a majority white fanbase and media, were more severe than those granted by the criminal justice system, the film makes no attempt to explore this.
"Untold" arrives at a time when athletes are beginning to speak publicly and candidly about their struggles with mental health. From Simone Biles to Aaron Rodgers, this trend of honesty with fans is necessary to humanize athletes, a feat that the film thoroughly achieves. The film’s willingness to share these stories with audiences prompts discussions about racism in the sports industry, moral and legal culpability for public figures, mental health, the biased nature of media, and more. Though there is a long way to go when it comes to breaking these stigmas, “Untold” proves that aiming for transparency and addressing these universal stories is the first step.