Mike Tyson documentary packs powerful punch

James Toback film offers new perspective on the controversial boxer

Toback offered Tyson a role in his next film, Black and White (1999), a New York drama about white infatuation with black hip-hop culture. Tyson would play himself, improvising most of his dialogue and actions, including a memorable scene in which Downey, cast as the effete husband of a documentary filmmaker (Brooke Shields), comes on to Tyson at a party and ends up in a violent chokehold. It was a later scene, however, in which a hip-hop producer (played by Wu-Tang Clan's Power) asks Tyson for advice on his planned retaliation against a duplicitous friend, that made Toback realize the boxer deserved an entire film to himself. Tyson's double-sided, in-the-moment reply, first advising the younger man to murder his adversary, then immediately denying those words and cautioning against the potential legal repercussions, sealed the deal.

"I knew Mike was incapable of any guile, and that the revelatory aspects of his personality would be uninhibitedly truthful, because Mike is not capable of sticking to a script, no matter what it is," says Toback. "He has the complexities and incompatibilities of thought and feeling that really fascinating fictional characters have. You can tell him exactly what to say, he'll nod, and then 22 seconds later you'll hear something that doesn't resemble it, because it's what he's hearing in his head at that moment."

At this particular moment, Tyson holds forth with a fittingly enigmatic rejoinder. "I would love to be able to lie, man, but the truth is more simple," he says. "I've lied a great deal of my life. I used to always believe in telling the truth. I've lied on quite a few occasions, but I realize the truth will always set me free."

Mike Tyson
photo by Larry McConkey, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Mike Tyson
Against Holyfield, Tyson bit offmore than he could chew
Larry Ignelzi for AP
Against Holyfield, Tyson bit offmore than he could chew


The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival begins April 16. This week, City Pages takes an in-depth look at one of the films in the festival, a fascinating documentary on former boxer Mike Tyson. Next week we will present our annual guide to MSPIFF, including profiles of Minnesota filmmakers and reviews of many of the films.

Tyson went on to make a cameo appearance in Toback's 2004 film When Will I Be Loved, but it would be almost another decade before they embarked on their mano a mano collaboration—a delay the director chalks up to his commitments to other projects as well as Tyson's own pressing demands, including his 2006 arrest on DUI and narcotics possession charges outside a Scottsdale, Arizona, nightclub. Ironically, it was both men's desire to escape from self-destructive behavior that finally brought them together.

"After boxing, I became very bored and lethargic," says Tyson. "I had nothing to do, and I found myself in a lot of trouble. I never planned on any other life. I always wanted to be a fighter and entertain people. When you can't entertain people no more, it's almost like you're dead."

Toback, meanwhile, was reeling from a literal death—that of his mother, Selma, which he describes as having had its own LSD-like effect. Overcome with a heightened sense of his own mortality, Toback felt "that if I didn't make a movie quickly, I would probably get into a good deal of trouble." He thought the time ideal to revisit the Tyson project, at which point, as if by divine intervention, Tyson's Scottsdale arrest landed him in a Los Angeles rehab center. Says Toback: "There probably is no other place than a rehab facility which would have allowed him both mentally and physically to devote himself in this necessarily single-minded way to the movie."

Though Mike Tyson is the product of an allegedly "post-racial" society, he has been politicized and demonized, at least in part, because of the color of his skin. "If he had had a persona similar to his and he'd been white, he simply wouldn't have had the kind of demonic weight that he has had in the public imagination," suggests Toback.

That is not to say that Tyson is innocent of his alleged crimes. Even while continuing to protest the rape allegations of an 18-year-old Miss Black America contestant (whom he refers to, in Tyson, as "that wretched swine of a woman"), he cops to having committed other unspecified trespasses in his life for which he was never prosecuted and says that prison is a place he entirely deserved to go. Still, as the novelist Pete Dexter (among others) argued in an editorial from the period, the equally (if not more) damning evidence in the previous year's William Kennedy Smith rape case had resulted in an acquittal, in part because Smith had played the role of upstanding society member before the jury, whereas Tyson seemed congenitally incapable of playing anything other than himself. (But could William Kennedy Smith, one wonders, quote Chairman Mao and Nelson Mandela at the drop of a hat?) Tyson's guilty verdict, all but a foregone conclusion, was subsequently championed as a triumph for justice, women's rights, and the feminist agenda.

Today, Tyson carries a lifetime's worth of regret on his still-massive shoulders, though neither in person nor in Tyson does he ask for absolution. The regret is more of a mark that will be with him always, like the elaborate Maori tattoo that splays across his face.

Tyson doesn't talk much of his "Iron Mike" glory days, preferring—if boxing must be discussed at all—to enthuse about brilliant fighters all but forgotten by boxing history, like the 1916-1920 world light-heavyweight champ Battling Levinsky. "It's just emotionally impossible for us to be as tough as those guys were at the turn of the century," he says with a kind of awed reverence. "The lifestyle they lived.... Today, a guy who's just a junior fighter can get lucky and knock out a guy, get a headlining fight, and become a millionaire in one night. These guys didn't become millionaires after 25 years of boxing, and some of them were on top of their game for 15 or 20 years. It's wholly a dedication, commitment, desire, will to win...it just supersedes anything that this era of fighting or this lifetime has ever seen."

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