From Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles to Tyrone Mings, there has been a recent wave of athletes talking publicly and honestly about their mental health. In turn, some of the negative reaction to their stories has shown that there is still a long way to go. In this sense, Untold (Netflix) feels incredibly timely. This five-part documentary offers a forensic look at sport and the stars it creates. It goes deep into the psychology of excellence, and how fame and expectations can have a corrosive effect on an athlete’s mental and physical wellbeing. Often, it makes you think that there must be a better way of doing things.
The series pulls five disparate and dramatic tales out of the sporting annals and digs into what happened, and why. It is fascinating and should appeal to sports lovers, as well as those who would have preferred to stare at a blank screen than watch any of the Olympics. Unusually for Netflix, one episode will appear per week, rather than the whole lot arriving at once. Given that each documentary is a meaty, standalone feature-length film, shot with a cinematic flavour, it seems reasonable. They are all so gripping it almost enhances the pleasure to wait.
The first instalment, Malice at the Palace, might be the best. Broadly, it tells the story of the basketball game that took place on 19 November 2004 between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons. In its closing moments, the game descended into a mass brawl between players and members of the crowd. Untold sets up an intriguing premise from its opening moments, promising unseen footage of that night. Even now, after almost 20 years, it proves to be a shocking scene.
The Palace of Auburn Hills was home to the Pistons and, as the venue’s former head of operations now wisely observes, letting 20,000 spectators into the Palace five hours before a tense, charged basketball game – giving them plenty of time to get drunk – might not necessarily have led to an atmosphere of calm and serenity. Anyone with the image of a flare wedged up a backside in Leicester Square fixed firmly in their mind is likely to concur.
The Pacers were the ones to watch – in fact, they were winning the game comfortably – before a tussle between the Pacers’ Ron Artest and the Pistons’ Ben Wallace. It might have ended there, a bit of aggressive theatre, but in a moment so dramatically astonishing that it could never have been scripted, a man in the crowd launched a cup of beer towards the players. It arched over the stands and landed on Artest’s chest, sending him up into the seats in a fury, and chaos erupted.
What Untold does so brilliantly is control that chaos. The key players in the story all explain how they fitted into it, and they go far beneath the surface. Artest talks about his struggles with anxiety and depression, and how he felt he had little control over the extremes of his emotional state at that time. In 2004, Wallace’s brother had only recently died; he refers to himself then as “a powder keg”. Artest’s teammates, Jermaine O’Neal and Stephen Jackson, ended up in the melee with him, and both assess that night with a clarity that suggests they have spent years reflecting on what it meant for them, as famous Black men, as sports stars and as friends.
Untold is executive-produced by Chapmanand Maclain Way, who direct two of the series’ episodes (though not Malice … which is directed by Zion’s Floyd Russ), and who also made Wild Wild Country. Like Wild Wild Country, it uses documentary-making as a thrilling examination of human psychology, though unlike its predecessor – which was exciting at the occasional cost of coherence – this is impeccably structured. It is personal but also broad, underscoring institutional prejudice and the bigotry of a baying media that labelled Black players as “thugs” and “gangster wannabes”.
Later episodes turn to Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transition and her gold-medal-winning life as the athlete Bruce (she is firm, here, that that was Bruce’s achievement); the minor league hockey team that was given to a convicted waste disposal magnate’s 17-year-old son; the friendship and rivalry between Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish, which is unmissable, particularly in terms of the current press conference debate in tennis; and the astonishing story of Christy Salters-Martin, the pioneering female boxer who was shot and stabbed by her former husband and coach, James Martin. Some of its more famous stories may not quite be untold, but they are reframed – and with great skill.