Tyson (2008); Dir. James Toback

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I was in an elevator once with Mike Tyson. He stood directly in front of me. He was huge. He was in a suit and shoes that exuded millions of dollars. He smelled fantastic. But what struck me, standing as I was behind him, was the size of his neck. It was wider than my own shoulders. It was like staring at Mount Rushmore.

This weekend, I saw James Toback’s documentary Tyson, which has been generating a lot of controversy, due to the totally biased nature of the project. There is no outside narration, no objective eye. Tyson sits on a couch and talks directly to the camera for the duration of the film. There’s a lot of great footage, of Tyson as a young fighter, with his mentor and savior, Cus D’Amato, and all of Tyson’s major fights – the triumphs and the disasters. But we are not meant to see the film as a clear-eyed objective look at the man. It is clearly a defense of Tyson. Human beings are, of course, notoriously unreliable when it comes to telling their own stories – but that’s part of the strength of the film. Tyson does not wallow in self-pity so much. He takes responsibility for his actions, and while he may have blind spots, and deep character flaws, my main response watching the thing was compassion, and also identification. This is the last thing I thought I would experience, going in. I identified with Mike Tyson? His neck is bigger than my torso. How can I see myself in him?

He tells a story early on of his family moving to the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn. Not just a rough area, it’s a completely decimated area, and you see photographs of it at that time and it looks like you’re looking at Beirut, circa 1983. Tyson talks about being picked on because he was fat, and he tells a story of another kid stealing his glasses. It blew his mind. It hurt him obviously. He still seems hurt. Things seem very simple in the Mike Tyson psychology we see in the film: he was messed with as a kid, and he vowed to never, ever, “lose” in any physical altercation with another person, ever. He says that repeatedly. He will never be humiliated again.

Could it be that simple?

Maybe it can.

One of the things that is so disarming about this film is how open he is. You don’t get a lot of bluster and defensiveness. As a matter of fact, you get almost none – so when it does come out (he refers to Don King as a “reptilian motherfucker”, and Desiree Washington as a “wretched swine”) it is almost refreshing. He comes off as pretty passive, in many ways, and in touch with the pain and poverty that got him to where he is today. The lack of self-esteem, all those psychological catch-words … He does not come off as unaware, or blind to the fact that he might have some deep-seated issues. He actually seems aware of all of it. He does not defend much of his actions – “I was out of control then …” or “I was not taking care of myself, I had forgotten about discipline” … but we do get his side of things in controversial moments such as the Holyfield fight and the rape conviction. Whatever you may think of Tyson and his behavior, it certainly cannot be argued that his “side” has been fully heard. To be angry that he now has a chance to talk about his version of events seems rather ridiculous to me, when so much print has been devoted to rehashing the case against him. He was buried in the press, he was crucified a hundred times over. Even at the time of the rape conviction, I remember thinking, “I don’t know, man, there’s something not right about this.” I read the reports of what happened in that hotel room, and felt like this was a man being railroaded by a woman who regretted her decision to go up to his room. But “regret” does not equal “rape”. Most of us have made choices in that arena that we regret. I never believed a rape happened, is what I’m trying to say. Not that it matters. He was convicted in a court of law. I still think it stinks. I wasn’t in that hotel room, none of us were, so nobody can say for sure. Tyson is no angel, and he admits that repeatedly in the interviews. He has slept around, has never been faithful to one woman, and the lure of what fame gave him was too much for him to resist. But there was something rotten in the state of Denmark with that rape conviction.

Watching, again, the footage of the infamous interview Robin Givens (his wife at the time) and Tyson had with Barbara Walters, I was struck by how much was stacked against this man. The assumption being: he is a huge scary-looking black man with a gold tooth, and so we are prepared to believe the worst of him. Givens goes on and on about how “manic” Tyson is, and “abusive – but not physically abusive …”, all as he is sitting right there. I remember watching that interview when it first came out, and again alarm bells went off. Something didn’t seem quite right. There are many things on this planet where I am completely comfortable saying, “You know what? I don’t know enough about that topic to comment on it.” But human behavior, and the nonverbal clues people give off, is NOT one of those topics. Robin Givens came off as false in that interview. It felt scripted and act-ed to me. She was making up a story. She knew public sympathy would automatically be on her side (I mean, look at her brute husband! Yeah, but hon, you picked him. You married him. Take some responsibility for that choice!) so she goes off, riffing, using psychological terms like “manic” and “abusive”, all with Baba Wawa as a captive audience. Tyson says, in regards to this event, that all of it was a lie, and while, yes, he had problems, and would try to get away with things with women, he never abused her, it was all lies. But what could he do? If he went crazy, and defended himself, then that was only what was expected of him. It would prove Robin Givens’ point. Nobody would defend him. He was completely alone.

But the most moving part of the entire Robin Givens section of the documentary, was Tyson saying, “Look, we were 21 years old, we were in love, everyone was in our business, and we didn’t know what we were doing. But we were just kids, just kids, just kids …” He says “just kids” three times, shaking his head each time, forgiving himself and her for the craziness they involved themselves in.

One of the things I found charming (in a disorienting way – the movie really worked on me) was Tyson’s oddly formal cadences. He speaks in an old-school way, using words like “skulduggery” (two or three times), and referring to Robin Givens as “a nice young lady”. He mentions that before one major fight he learned he had contracted gonorrhea. He says, “I either got it from a prostitute or … a very filthy young lady.” The audience I saw it with, myself included, burst into laughter.

I lost track of how many times Tyson said the word “fear”. What I see in his eyes, what I feel from him, is not anger or rage or some kind of animalistic power. I see fear. The fear of the little boy who got his glasses stolen, and is afraid of a physical confrontation. It is a strange dichotomy, and one that I imagine most audience members will find supremely unbalancing. If you go into it despising Tyson and what he represents, you may find your mind changed. Or you may be furious at Toback, for presenting Tyson in a sympathetic light. That’s all part of what is interesting about the film. It leaves the audience huge realms of space to make up their own minds. It is confronting because on some level the lack of omniscient narration puts you (the audience) up against yourself. You are forced to deal with your own issues, your own responses.

Now I may be more predisposed towards sympathy with Tyson than someone else, even though I’m not a big boxing fan, or anything like that. I felt the rape conviction was bogus and I thought Robin Givens came off really badly and falsely in the interview with Walters, I didn’t believe a word she said.

The Holyfield fight was horrifying (amazing footage in the documentary, with Tyson breaking it down for us – the play by play of what was going on between those two men) – and Holyfield was fighting dirty, headbutting Tyson, and Tyson finally had it and bit the man’s ear. Indefensible. And Tyson does not waste time defending himself. He is more upset that he lost his discipline. He has disappointed not only himself, but Cus D’Amato, the trainer who took Tyson as a teenager under his wing (moving him into his house with his family), who taught him everything he knew about boxing. Cus D’Amato, a kind of Mickey-from-Rocky character, drilled it into Tyson’s head that there needed to be a spiritual aspect of boxing, that so much of it had to do with mental preparation, and mental toughness. In the Holyfield fight, Tyson snapped.

Toback uses a split screen a bit too much, with multiple shots of Tyson talking, and I wasn’t wacky about that technique. I wanted more just full-frontal Tyson, no tricks or bells and whistles. Of course this is Toback we’re talking about, and he can’t help himself. Toback and Tyson have been good friends for over 20 years. Toback makes no pretense at making anything fair and balanced. I believe that that is one of the main strengths of the film.

Tyson makes a riveting subject. He is articulate, funny at times, honest, and so open you almost want to tell him to protect himself a little bit more. I could have listened to him talk for an hour or so more. He has the Maori tattoo across his face, and the camera gets so close you are almost up his nose, and any preconceived notions you might have about Tyson the man are right there in his face: he is so huge, so intimidating. He looks so frightening. But spending time in his company for the duration of the documentary, all I could see, over and over again, in a newsreel of repetition, was that little boy in Brownsville, who got his glasses stolen, and – to this day – seems baffled and confused as to why someone would ever do that to another person.

Highly recommended.

It will get you talking, that’s for sure.

Here is Roger Ebert’s review.

Don’t miss Kim’s review, which has a video clip of her interview with James Toback.

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16 Responses to Tyson (2008); Dir. James Toback

  1. nightfly says:

    It may not be online anymore, but Bill Simmons wrote a good article about Tyson a few years ago for his ESPN.com column. He visited Tyson and watched him fly his pigeons and spent most of a day with him. Nothing this involved as I recall, but still good. An interesting look at the man.

  2. red says:

    Nightfly – I’ll see if I can track down the Simmons piece. Tobacks documentary is really good – I’ve been contemplating it for two days now. Fight fans will definitely be interested – but it’s not just made for fight fans.

  3. MrG says:

    Awesome review Sheila! Thank you! I can’t wait to see this film. I’m kind of a boxing fanatic. (hey I got Boxeo y Teatro on my bookshelf! Like my fantasy book almost). I remember running out of a Cactus rehearsal once and onto the street to ask someone who won the Tyson-Spinks fight.
    Of course my interest in Tyson is his boxing skills and that relationship with Cus. Cus schooled him in all that old time stuff and Tyson is able to talk about all the great fighters throughout the ages, having seen tapes of their fights with Cus.
    What I remember about the marriage with Givens was Given’s mother saying at the time “this will be a good first marraige for Robin.” It was doomed all the way and like you indicated Mike got played on that one.
    Anyway, thanks again for the insight – I look forward to it!
    -David

  4. Ken says:

    I drive past the Tyson estate in Farmington on the way to the Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources rifle range I occasionally haunt.

    Tyson is a sad story. I think he was slotted into the “Sonny Liston/Clubber Lang” pigeonhole early on (hell, Sonny Liston wasn’t “Sonny Liston” either, if ya folla me).

    He does not come off as unaware, or blind to the fact that he might have some deep-seated issues. He actually seems aware of all of it.

    Absolutely spot on. Knows it and can’t fix it, whatever “fixing it” would entail. That’s what makes it sad to me. I don’t mean it in the sense of wanting to give him a pass, but it’s sad nonetheless.

  5. red says:

    MrG – since you’re a big boxing fanatic, I will be very very interested to hear your take. Whenever you see it, will you let me know? I’d love to hear.

  6. Tommy says:

    Tyson’s always been a minor fascination for me, and hearing an interview with Toback a couple weekends ago on XM really made this one a must see….

  7. red says:

    I would say, too, if it’s not playing in your area – you can definitely wait to rent it. Not really necessary to see it on the big screen.

  8. nightfly says:

    HA! It took some doing – but I got it.

    Bill Simmons on Mike Tyson, April 2003.

  9. george says:

    Sheila reviews “Tyson”! This is just great! Loved the sport for the longest time, more before than now, and Tyson seems to be the demarcator, the point at which I’d cooled. Had every reason to dislike him in the ring, but thought he’d gotten a raw deal outside it, even within the profession itself – not surprising, with the likes of Don King and the rest of the bloodsuckers. One thing about boxing’s heavyweight division, it has provided a boatload of great personalities/characters and Tyson is right up there near the top. Hope I get a chance to see “Tyson” soon.

    Thanks loads for seeing this and reviewing it.

  10. red says:

    George – interesting that you say “bloodsuckers” – Tyson has a big monologue about the “leeches” and how he had surrounded himself with “leeches” – but then, in a jujitsu move that seems typical of Tyson – he said, “I guess I was a leech, too.”

    Very glad you liked the review – again: when you all go see it, come back and find this review and let me know your thoughts. I’m not a boxing fan, as I said, although I can appreciate the sheer athleticism required – and I’d love to hear a boxing fan’s thoughts.

  11. red says:

    Nightfly – thank you for being a detective – going to read that link now! Thank you!!

  12. red says:

    And MrG – sorry, wanted to comment on something you said: about Tyson’s knowledge of the history of boxing because of watching Cus D’Amato’s tapes – there’s a great section of the doc about that … his brief blunt analysis of Jack Dempsey, Muhammad Ali – based on sitting up all night watching their fights.

    Again, its riveting.

    Not to mention how moving this Cus D’Amato character is. My apologies, I am sure he is world-famous to boxing fans – but I am new to this. I really enjoyed learning about him a little bit.

  13. red says:

    Boxing fans: thoughts on the Holyfield fight?

    I’d love to hear your perspective.

  14. MrG says:

    Mike and Cus (with Kevin Rooney along for the ride as asst. trainer) certainly had that classic mentor-student relationship that encompassed more than just the mechanics of boxing. Of course it was all at the end of Cus’ career and life, and the beginning of Mike’s, that they were together.
    At that time, most of the boxers fought, or wanted to fight, like Ali, or Sugar Ray Leonard, dancing around the ring, showing off occassionally, things like that. (I believe in one of the last Rocky movies even he somehow turned into this guy who could move quickly around the ring dancing and jabbing and taunting – with the Eye of the Tiger blasting too!) They all wore showy Robes and boxing trunks in the ring. Guys like Hector Macho Camacho and so forth – these were the popular fighters. Then here came Tyson on the scene all of a sudden. He just wore those plain black trunks, no robe, no socks, just all business, coming in the ring with his eyes on the opponent, no glamour or glitz. And he fought like no one we had seen really, in a very, very long time at least, in this low crouch, bobbing and weaving, with this amazing balance and speed and power, throwing punches and combinations of punches from various angles with incredible accuracy and precision. It was a terrific fusion of talent and technique. The style and approach fit his physique, his personality, etc.
    And Mike is big, but almost every one he fought throughout his career was bigger than he was. He was small for a modern day heavyweight really.
    Anyway, in those early fights he would knock out his opponent and then go help them up, kiss them or hug them or something like that. The ferocious boxer turned gentle lamb kind of thing, though I don’t like such a simple dichotomy. But it was unusual.
    In the latter part of his career Tyson had lost, or forgotten, or just couldn’t do what he had done earlier, those things Cus had taught him, that unique way of fighting. His whole body didn’t work together in the ring like it had when he was younger. He wasn’t “beautiful” as we say anymore. He was just there punching and fighting.
    In the Holyfield fight, the ear biting fight, he just lost it. He was looking for a way out. His will was broken and everyone knows when a fighters will is broken he is doomed. Mike chose to do something stupid as his way out of it. The whole pressure and attitude and circus around his behavior leading up to it all just wasn’t really Mike I don’t think and it all took its toll and came crashing down in that moment, mental exhaustion and him losing his cool and more. I think by that time he had gotten so far away from who he really was and the good things Cus had taught him that it just caught up to him in one act of desperation.

    thanks again Sheila for writing about it – I’ll let you know when I see it.

    -D

  15. nightfly says:

    Completely unfamiliar with the Holyfield fight, but I have watched Tyson-Douglas a few times… what gets me is that Tyson was so close to winning that fight. Douglas didn’t just roll over the guy. It was a tough, tough, even match – and part of Tyson’s aura was that he ought not to have tough, even matches. Not that Douglas wasn’t having the fight of his life out there but the difference between expectations and reality really highlighted him, made him look a little better as it was happening.

    Tyson put Douglas on the canvas once (pretty sure it was the eighth) and everyone inched up, thinking that this was it, he was finally gonna get him – Douglas got up, they went at it again… Douglas was in terrible trouble. Tyson clipped him with another shot, if I recall correctly it was a short little uppercut, and Douglas stumbled FORWARD, into Tyson. Had he fallen the other way the fight was over, the lights were flickering – Tyson would have been able to land the final shot… but by the time Tyson managed to shrug Douglas off, he had gotten back just enough wits to protect himself until the round ended.

    Then in the ninth, just before the combination that put him down, Tyson set him up and threw an uppercut that started from his knees – he missed it by maybe an inch. He’d have knocked Douglas’ head into the third row with that punch. But Douglas leaned away just enough, and Tyson had put so much into it he wasn’t able to follow to the body, and then Douglas got him. It was really a great fight, one of the last great heavyweight fights really.

  16. red says:

    Thanks, guys – all really interesting. Keep talking, if you feel like it. I love it all.