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.
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.