SXSW 2017: Disgraced
In 2003, the murder of Baylor University men’s basketball player Patrick Dennehy shook both the city of Waco, Texas and the college sports community. The film Disgraced delves into the details of the case, from Dennehy’s initial disappearance to the conviction of Carlton Dotson, who confessed to shooting and killing Dennehy. One element that makes this more compelling than your standard murder mystery documentary is the revelation of an attempted cover-up of illegal payoffs made to Dennehy by the Baylor head coach, Dave Bliss.
Disgraced does its best to sort through the massive amount of information taken from the case. It almost becomes too dense with the evidence presented to be engaging, but once it starts to reveal the shocking twists and turns in the story it’s impossible to turn away. Director Pat Kondelis makes the film’s mandate clear—there was something inherently wrong with the way the coaches at Baylor operated, leading up to and during Dennehy's murder case. Once Dennehy goes missing, the coaches at Baylor tried to, at first, keep things within the college’s system. Once the case reached the Waco police, Dennehy’s girlfriend revealed the shady and illegal practice that was going on behind the scenes—there were payoffs to the players by coaches.
Talking head interviews of various people involved in the case permeate the film, with well-made reenactments framing it all. It’s when the film breaks away from its precise silent narration that elevates it above most documentaries. During the murder investigation, coach Dave Bliss was secretly audiotaped, revealing a plan to divert attention away from the cash payoffs made by the coaches to the unsubstantiated rumor that Dennehy was selling drugs. Bliss resigned shortly after the tapes were released and years later he’s back to coaching, this time for Southwestern Christian University. For so many people who refused to be interviewed for Disgraced—in the film’s final moments, a long list of key people who turned down the opportunity to speak is shown—it’s odd that Bliss would agree to sit down with the filmmakers.
In a moment reminiscent of the now-quintessential documentary The Jinx, Bliss asks his behind-the-camera interviewer to not record what he’s about to say next. Bliss then claims Dennehy was indeed selling drugs, something the interviewer, who was quiet up to that point, states is false. Bliss is persistent, though, intent on putting the attention off him so many years later. It’s in those purely human moments that Disgraced becomes well worth the experience. The coaches at Baylor, the city Waco, and those wanting to keep NCAA basketball honorable had a hand in Dennehy’s post-murder story, but what Disgraced starts to dig at, and something that should’ve been further exposed, is the possibility that all these forces might have had something to do with the actual murder. Disgraced does the hard work, and by the end, you’re on the edge of your seat wanting more.