The writer/director James Toback is clearly mesmerized by powerful, dangerous black men and the sexual mystique they supposedly pack. In 1971, Toback expanded an Esquire article into a book about football star Jim Brown; seven years later, he cast Brown in Fingers as a pimp who memorably slaps two women’s heads together. Toback’s interest eventually turned to Mike Tyson, who has appeared as himself in two Toback efforts (1999’s Black and White, wherein he bitch-slapped Robert Downey Jr., and 2002’s When Will I Be Loved). Toback’s new documentary Tyson, which has just opened in New York and L.A. before it expands to other cities, completes the trilogy. Tyson, who obviously trusts Toback, sits for his camera and tells his story. We’re never sure how much of it to believe, but the way Tyson tells it is in itself revealing.¹
Convicted rapist, ear-biter, self-proclaimed animal: Tyson couldn’t be a more fitting tormented anti-hero for a Toback film if Toback had created Tyson himself. Forty when the film was shot, and looking puffier and mellower, Tyson takes us through the narrative of his life, which offers more redemptions and falls and redemptions and falls than any six novels. The fat, lisping kid from Brooklyn grew up, with the help of trainer Cus D’Amato, into a feared ring assassin, a boxer who gained a rep (like Rubin “Hurricane” Carter) for decimating his opponents in the first round. (In the most hyperbolic example of this, he sat Michael Spinks down in 91 seconds.)
As anyone who’s seen Raging Bull knows, the great boxer is not always — maybe even not usually — a great human being. Tyson, however, seemed almost hell-bent on living up to the tabloids’ bad-boy image. In the film, Tyson is generously dismissive of his tumultuous eight-month marriage to Robin Givens (“We were just kids”) but reserves his wrath for Don King, who he says stole his money, and Desiree Washington, whose 1991 encounter with Tyson led to his six-year sentence for rape (of which he served three). Significantly, Tyson allows that he might have taken advantage of other women, but not her. So either he was caught this time, or was innocent in this case but never got caught those other times.
Toback doesn’t question or judge; he just lets Tyson have his say. Over and over again, the older Tyson says “I can’t blame anyone but myself.” There’s no equivocation in his language; his version of events may be debatable, but his sincerity isn’t — he says what he believes, and he believes what he says. Toback doesn’t need to provide counterargument; we’re doing that ourselves. By the time the film gets to Tyson’s infamous 1997 rematch with Evander Holyfield, which left a chunk of Holyfield’s right ear on the ring floor, the titan’s fall seems complete. The movie doesn’t get into Tyson’s subsequent legal woes, gliding ahead into a portrait of Tyson as proud daddy (by several different women) and wannabe grandfather. He’s frequently photographed staring off into the ocean at sunset, like a beached sea monster who’s lost his home. Tyson doesn’t pretend to be a balanced picture, but it’s a fascinating peek into a teeming, demon-filled brain that isn’t like anyone else’s.
¹For instance, describing a quick tryst with an anonymous woman in some bathroom, Tyson says that he performed “fellatio” on her. Either he truly isn’t aware of the proper term “cunnilingus,” or this is the biggest Freudian slip in the history of documentaries. That Toback (a) didn’t correct Tyson and (b) left it in the film says something, though I’m not sure what.