Mike Tyson reading poetry of Oscar Wilde? The former world heavyweight champion’s recitation of lines from “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” as commentary on his own imprisonment for rape—a career-destroying charge that he hotly denies—is only one of the surprises of James Toback’s documentary. The biggest shock, quite frankly, is how genuinely reflective and sympathetic the fighter seems in the interviews that are the heart of the film.
Of course, Toback and Tyson have been friends for a long time—the champ appeared in both “Black and White” and “When Will I Be Loved” for the director—so you might expect the film to be revisionist. But it doesn’t come across as a whitewash, if you’ll pardon the term. By presenting the boxer in his own words it obviously makes no claim to “objectivity.” Instead it declares that it’s simply giving Tyson the opportunity to present his perspective on his own life—it’s really autobiographical rather than biographical.
And what he has to say is fascinating. He recalls his Brooklyn childhood, describing himself as a kid who was bullied and threatened until a stint in juvenile hall, when he began boxing, and his adoption by trainer Cus D’Amato, who became the father figure he desperately needed. It was D’Amato, as Tyson himself admits, who not only molded his talent but guided his early success to the championship by the time he was twenty.
It was D’Amato’s death, Tyson argues, that led to the loss of discipline that caused his downfall, especially after he came more and more under the thumb of sleazoid promoter Don King. He’s straightforward about the crass attitude toward women that not only undermined his professional career but led to his brief, catastrophic marriage to the ambitious Robin Givens and to the rape charge that resulted in his incarceration in Indiana. He’s equally honest about his post-jail disgraces in the ring—most obviously demonstrated in the notorious ear-biting incident with Evander Holyfield. But he also suggests that he’s reached a stage of equilibrium and relative happiness in his retirement years.
Throughout his testimony, which Toback presents sometimes in straight-on excerpts but often in shifting split-screen formats that mirror the layers and conflicts in Tyson’s personality (which he then intercuts with archival fight footage and other material, including the famous Barbara Walters interview in which Givens announced she was divorcing her obviously dazed husband), Tyson engages us as a man who combines an almost childish naivete with almost unimaginable reservoirs of physical power, and a neediness arising from his impoverished youth with a virtually limitless penchant for wasting the fortunes he’s repeatedly earned and lost. The only sticking points are the occasions when Tyson falls into the excuse of blacking out at the times he can’t explain away his actions. They seem all too convenient, and curiously incongruent with his usual frankness.
But they probably won’t keep you from slipping, willingly or otherwise, from a conventional view of Tyson as a dangerous brute to one that sees him as a decidedly complex but troubled and oddly sympathetic soul. Toback’s film, which interlaces the interview material skillfully with the “supporting” footage, may be more argument than even-handed report, but it’s likely to alter people’s opinions about its subject while reinforcing their amazement at his career in the ring. That’s a considerable accomplishment.