In the mid-1990s, while riding in a cab in Las Vegas, I caught sight of a shiny black Bentley ahead in the adjacent lane. Plastered askew on its bumper was a white vinyl sticker that read: "I [heart] Allah." I wondered: Who puts a 99-cent sticker on a $100,000 car?
As we pulled up, I saw who did: Mike Tyson. And I saw his huge, beat-up hands gripping the steering wheel, his face set hard. The cab-driver warned, "Don't look at him."
The sighting stuck with me, not least because it seemed to encapsulate so many things about the boxer: his wealth; his jailhouse conversion to Islam; the visible scars that showed he made a living pummeling people; the immediate unease his well-documented volatile reputation engendered; and his strange place on the ladder of status (a zillionaire's car tagged with a poor man's sticker). In all, it was rather a sad tableau: Being Mike Tyson didn't look like much fun.
I recalled all these things while watching James Toback's fascinating documentary Tyson, in which the former heavyweight champ recounts his tumultuous life. Toback's film is less a biographical documentary than an extended monologue from its subject. Toback is a longtime acquaintance of Tyson, and this access netted the director (Black and White, Fingers) a remarkably candid portrait. Tyson is obviously a must for fans of the sweet science, but the film's larger narrative about a man in search of redemption and understanding transcends any specifics about boxing.
Toback mostly shoots his subject simply sitting on a couch in medium close-up. Tyson, the only narrator, tells his story in linear fashion, beginning with his rough upbringing in Brooklyn, and continuing through his boxing success and his slide into ignoble retirement. Footage is provided from various bouts; earlier televised interviews, news segments and press conferences; and the occasional bit of home video.
All the highlights and lowlights are there: the mentorship under trainer Cus D'Amato; Tyson's meteoric rise in the ring; his brief marriage to actress Robin Givens; and the accusation of rape and subsequent prison term. After jail, Tyson seemed to be one dust-up or crazy act after another. There were money squabbles with promoter Don King; rages at weigh-ins ("I'll eat your children"); the fuck-you tattoos, including the Maori warrior markings on his face; and embarrassing defeats in the ring.
It's all capped by what everybody now remembers most about Tyson: the infamous 1997 ear-biting match with Evander Holyfield that generated a white-hot blast of derision and completed Tyson's transformation from champ to chump.
Today, the cocky young man with the cheeky smile has morphed into a heavier-set 40-year-old who looks literally weighed down by the past. Despite repeatedly stressing how he can't trust anyone, Tyson is remarkably open, both with information and with emotion. (He chokes up recalling early traumas, and this is a man who still harbors a lot of anger.) Tyson has the air of a public confession, where the pain of recounting past failures and suppressed feelings is nonetheless a liberating release: Judge me as you will, Tyson offers, but at least here's my story.
It's not clear whether Tyson's account is in response to off-screen prompts from Toback, but there were points in the film where I wished for an interrogator to elicit further information or deeper reflection. Not surprisingly, Tyson angrily skips past the details of the rape case, but I'd have liked his thoughts on such thorny, unaddressed topics as how it felt to be a commodity; to be marketed as an animalistic black man; or whether he wished boxing -- a business with a lot of inherent ugliness -- had never happened to him.
Toback caught Tyson fresh out of rehab, and Tyson's ruminations reflect that institution's emphasis on self-examination free of self-pity and blame. Tyson has come to see his ferocity, hardness and tough reputation as a defense mechanism against his crippling self-doubt, fears (including, ironically, the fear of being beaten up) and loneliness. Yet his protective techniques proved just as much his undoing as his salvation.
The lack of outside voices defining Tyson in the film, or putting his story into a larger context, means every viewer plays armchair analyst. And yet, it's still a teensy bit discomfiting that even in this well-intentioned work, Tyson cannot fully escape being the Curious Object to Be Studied by Outsiders.
Certainly, no one will declare Tyson self-actualized. He's a complicated and still conflicted man who has lived a lifetime in an unreal place. His statements are occasionally contradictory, self-serving or infuriating. (Successful relationships with women are clearly a work in progress.)
But his candor is illuminating, however a viewer chooses to judge Tyson: tragic figure; immature bully; great athlete; egomaniac? And what will he now become? Tyson is in a tenuous place: a former boxer with no clearly defined second act.
Despite all the new revelations this film brings, I stand by my earlier assumption, now bolstered by Tyson's own imprimatur: Being Mike Tyson has been, and continues to be, a struggle.
Starts Fri., June 5. Regent Square