I've known of and thought about Mike Tyson since I was 10 years old, when he became the youngest ever heavyweight-boxing champion. His power captured my imagination as I caught fire to the world of sports, and his youthful fame seemed eminently more relatable than a galaxy of teen actors could ever sell. I cheered for him as he routed opponents, resisted as scandal mounted outside the ring, and violently turned on him as his outrages proved irresistible.
Now, having seen the documentary Tyson, I realize none of these responses gave him a fair shake at all. How is it that I never truly perceived a man I've been paying attention to for more than two-thirds of my life?
Tyson is a monologue of a film, a life story narrated by the only man who lived it. Through archival footage and the champ's reminiscences, Tyson takes us back to his hardscrabble upbringing on Brooklyn's mean streets. Simply, powerfully, the idea of a scared, bullied kid who lives in terror of being physically humiliated emerges.
Incarcerated in a juvenile center after run-ins with the law, Tyson serendipitously came to the attention of boxing trainer Cus D'Amato at age 14. D'Amato taught the youngster discipline and character and gave him a safe place to be in the world. On film, Tyson gets emotional talking about the mentor who believed in him. The boxer rose through the ranks under D'Amato's tutelage, and then, on the verge of getting his heavyweight shot, the trainer died. Tyson was 19 years old and admits he was scared and vulnerable and lost belief in himself when he lost his friend.
Tyson's new trainers took him through his first years of fame, but they certainly don't appear to have had the beneficent effect on Iron Mike that D'Amato did. Based on the evidence in the film, it's very tempting to point to D'Amato's death as the moment when Tyson's life began to crater.
In passages such as these, Tyson could not be more sympathetic a figure. But contrast those passages to the way he talks about women, saying he likes to dominate strong women sexually and continuing to deny the rape allegations Desiree Washington made in 1991 (for which he was convicted and imprisoned for three years). In the film, Tyson calls Washington a "horrible swine of a woman."
In the hands of filmmaker James Toback (Black and White, the Bugsy screenplay), Tyson is as captivating in conversation as he was in the ring. Toback presents him with a visually arresting series of split screens and voiceover doubles and triples that come like a flurry of punches.
As an idea, Tyson conjures a host of paradoxes. It was through the pop-culture lens that Tyson was sequestered from being something other than his persona. So call it the miracle of media, then, that Toback uses the same tools to give him back his humanity.
The enquiring public has rented the famous boxer for more than 20 years. It's time to return the keys. Another inherent irony: It is through the sacrament of cinema consumerism that we can ritually cleanse ourselves of the celebrity stain.
Tyson goes from a larger-than-life character to the victim and victimizer we all are. "Old too soon, smart too late," Tyson says.
At the end of the film, he faces the future angry and disappointed in himself. One wishes him the blessing of anonymity to heal himself. (My screening of Tyson happened prior to the news of his 4-year-old daughter's tragic accidental death. If it's now acknowledged in the film, I cannot say.)
Opens Friday, June 12th