Tell Me More: Netflix’s UNTOLD: Malice at the Palace Doesn’t Quite Stick The Landing
This week, Netflix released Untold: Malice at the Palace, an inside look at the November 19, 2004 brawl between the Indiana Pacers, the Detroit Pistons and a handful of rabid (if not inebriated) Detroit fans. Malice is a part of Netflix’s Untold series, which aims to examine controversial issues or events as told by the people who lived them.
The streaming service giant has already proven itself to have the chops to deliver on documentaries in particular, and sports docs specifically. Everything from true crime to Last Chance U, Netflix rarely misses. And while I enjoyed the subject matter and pacing (the film has a run time of a little over an hour and gets right into it) I thought Malice left a bit more to be desired.
For starters, I would have liked to hear from the Pistons’ players. All the central Pacers characters (Ron Artest, Jermaine O’Neal, and Stephen Jackson) are there, but it would have been interesting to listen to the Detroit sideline explain that night. The documentary includes former Pistons great Ben Wallace, who arguably is the only Detroit player needed to tell the story, but there is a dynamic that merited further investigation.
O’Neal makes the point in the film that, unbeknownst to most fans, many of the players around the league are actually friends, and while every player competes to the fullest, they are not the mortal enemies that fans would hope they’d be. When the mayhem broke out, did the Pistons feel safe? Or were they concerned that the Auburn Palace crowd would turn on them too, knowing full well that all the coded language reserved for Indiana could easily apply to them, but for the home jerseys they donned that evening? I felt that was a thread worth pulling.
And while we are here, we might as well talk about it. When it came to race, Malice had the wind up but ultimately pulled its punch (last cheap fighting pun, I promise) when it came to race. O’Neal, Jackson and Artest spoke to the aftermath of media outlets labeling the NBA as thugs, interspersed with the requisite clips, but I never felt like the film really went there.
For one, the Malice at the Palace was at the rise of what would become the “Embrace Debate” talking heads programming model perfected by ESPN and duplicated by other networks. In 2004, seemingly every afternoon (mostly white) journalists were taking turns waxing rhapsodic about the “thuggery” of a hip-hop league full of (mostly black) players. I thought the film needed to devote more time to the names and faces from that era, many of whom are still in broadcasting today, doing their pearl clutching best.
This moment in time also coincided with the NBA entering the second year of a six-year, $4 billion dollar broadcast deal with ESPN, ABC and TNT, which meant the brawl presented Commissioner David Stern with the same issue he faced when he took over the league in the 80s: convincing white fans that it was okay to watch his black league. And as history has demonstrated at times throughout history, Stern had two options: either show fans that his players were harmless or that he had them under control. I would have liked to see more time devoted to Commissioner Stern’s choice as evaluated through his suspensions he handed out in the aftermath, teeming with the absolute power that would make Darth Sidious blush.
The last thing I wanted to see was the sports aftermath. Sure, there are brief summaries that wrap the story up nicely (all-time Pacer Reggie Miller retires at the end of the season; Artest requests a trade) but I wanted to see more about the basketball impact. In 2004, the Eastern Conference was essentially the Pistons and the Pacers. The Shaq/Kobe Lakers were done; Philadelphia and New Jersey had gone through their respective runs and LeBron James hadn’t yet ascended to his place atop the pantheon of all- time greats. The only real powerhouse was the San Antonio Spurs who won a classic NBA Finals series against the Pistons that spring.
What if that had been the 2004 Pacers in the Finals that year? With a team younger than the 1998 iteration that pushed Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals and more talented than the 2010s team with Paul George, Roy Hibbert, et al, that 2004 squad could have a title, two Finals appearances and six straight trips to the Eastern Conference finals under its belt from 2003 to 2008. Instead that resume belongs to the Pistons, arguably due in large part to the last minute of an NBA game. Definitely something that warranted more discussion.
In the end Malice feels more like a 30 for 30 than The Last Dance. Which is fine; there are tons of 30 for 30 episodes that are riveting and the perfect storm that brought The Last Dance to us in summer at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic could not be replicated.
The film does some things really well. I thought the input from all the Pistons personnel was great to highlight the chaos in trying to contain a mob of thousands in a moment’s notice. Miller, as he demonstrated in The Last Dance, gives great context and narrative. Maybe it’s a lot to ask a film to cover race relations, the player/fan dynamic and the sports impact in just under 75 minutes. That’s essentially three topics worthy of their own documentaries.
With its runtime and firsthand accounts, Malice at the Palace is definitely worth a watch.Just don’t expect to get all of your burning questions answered.