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. 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, as well as clips of all of Tyson’s major fights – the triumphs and the disasters. We are not meant to see the film as a clear-eyed “objective” look at the man (besides, objectivity does not exist). The film is obviously a defense of Tyson. Human beings are 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. He takes responsibility for his actions, and while he may have blind spots (who doesn’t?), and deep character flaws, the film generates compassion and identification.
Tyson tells a story early on of his family moving to the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn. Brownsville was not just rough, it was decimated. Photographs of it at that time could be mistaken for Beirut, circa 1983. Tyson talks about being picked on because he was fat, and he tells a story of another kid stealing his glasses. As a child, the event blew his mind. It hurt him. He still seems hurt. Things seem very simple in the Mike Tyson psychology revealed 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 again. He says that repeatedly. He will never be humiliated again.
Could it be that simple?
Maybe it can.
One of the most disarming things is how open Tyson is. There is almost no macho bluster or defensiveness. When anger does come out (he refers to Don King as a “reptilian motherfucker”, and Desiree Washington as a “wretched swine”) it is almost refreshing. Tyson comes off as relatively passive, in many ways, and still in touch with the pain and poverty that got him to where he is today. He does not come off as unaware, or blind to the fact that he might have some deep-seated issues. He does not defend much of his most controversial 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, say, the Holyfield fight and the rape conviction.
Whatever you may think of Tyson, it cannot be argued that his “side” has been heard. To be angry that he now has a chance to share his version of events is ridiculous and arrogant and against what we should be all about. 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, there’s something not right about this.” I suppose I am a traitor to my sex, but I am fine with that, if my sex is mainly represented as shrieking banshees on a constant witch-hunt. I read the reports of what happened in that hotel room, and felt that this was a man being railroaded by a woman who regretted her decision to go up to his room. “Regret” does not equal “rape”. Most of us have made choices like that that we regret. I never believed a rape happened, is what I’m trying to say. I think she made a choice she regretted. There is a difference. Not that it matters. He was convicted in a court of law. I still think it stinks. I realize that I wasn’t in that hotel room, none of us were, so nobody can say for sure, but there’s been enough print shrieking that he obviously did it, and victims must always be believed, that I know that I get to share my opinion in the public square too. Deal with it. We still live in a society where you can’t be shot dead for having a different opinion. Tyson admits his mistakes repeatedly in the interviews. He has slept around, has never been faithful to one woman, and the lure of what fame providedwas too much for him to resist. There was something rotten in the state of Denmark with that rape conviction. (And Alan Dershowitz agrees. Take it or leave it.)
Watching, again, the footage of the infamous Barbara Walters interview with Tyson and Robin Givens (Tyson’s wife at the time), I was struck by how much was stacked against this man. The assumption was: 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 watched that interview when it first came out, and again alarm bells went off. Something didn’t seem quite right. There are many areas in life 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 nonverbal clues people give off, is NOT one of those areas. 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! Of COURSE he was abusive.” My thoughts: Yeah, but hon, you picked him. You married him. Take some responsibility for your choice. Nobody forced you to pick him.) Givens goes off, riffing, using psychological terms like “manic” and “abusive”, all with Walters as a captive audience. Tyson says, in regards to this interview, 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 defended himself forcefully, then that was only what was expected of him. It would prove Robin Givens’ (bullshit) point.
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 co-created. Who can’t relate to that?
One of the things I found charming and disorienting was Tyson’s formal cadences of speech (which you will recognize, if you’ve watched him in interviews). He speaks in an old-fashioned way, using out-of-style 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.” He might as well be wearing a top hat and tails in a movie from 1932.
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. I see fear. The fear of the little boy whose glasses were stolen, who is afraid of a physical confrontation. It is a strange mix of impressions, considering his admittedly scary appearance (as well as thinking of what he is like in the boxing ring, fuggedaboutit), and a mix 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. The film leaves the audience huge realms of space to make up their own minds. It is confrontational because on some level the lack of omniscient narration puts you (the audience) up against yourself. You are forced to deal with your own responses, investigate them, question them.
I may be more predisposed towards sympathy with Tyson than someone else because I thought the rape conviction was bogus. The Holyfield fight was horrifying (and there is amazing footage in the documentary, with Tyson breaking down for us the play by play of what was going on between those two men, in the ring and out), but Holyfield was fighting dirty, headbutting Tyson, until Tyson finally had it and bit the man’s ear. Tyson does not waste time defending himself. He was more upset that he lost his discipline. He has disappointed not only himself, but Cus D’Amato, the trainer who took the teenage Tyson under his wing (even moving Tyson into his house with his family), who taught him everything he knew about boxing, drilled into Tyson’s head that there needed to be a spiritual aspect to boxing. So much of boxing had to do with mental preparation, and mental toughness. In the Holyfield fight, Tyson forgot that, and he admits it.
Toback uses a split screen a bit too much, with multiple shots of Tyson talking. I wanted more full-frontal Tyson, without the tricks or bells and whistles. Toback and Tyson have been good friends for over 20 years.
Tyson makes a riveting subject. He is articulate, funny, honest, and so open you almost feel protective of him. Tyson 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 evident, right there for all to see: he is so huge, so intimidating. He looks frightening. But spending time in his company for the duration of the documentary, all I could see, over and over again, a newsreel of repetition, was that little pudgy boy in Brownsville, whose glasses were stolen, and – to this day – seems baffled and confused as to why someone would ever do that to another person.
Don’t miss Kim’s review, which has a video clip of her interview with James Toback.