Mike Tyson has still got it. The ability to shock, excite, charm and terrify. When the audience found out before Saturday night’s screening that Iron Mike would be at the Q&A, the atmosphere became even more electric than it already was. It felt like one of his heavyweight title fights, buzzing with tension and danger.
Tyson has always been a hypnotic figure. For me, growing up the in 1980, his rise and fall took me from junior high school through college, and his character was as engrossing and crucial to my development as that of Kurt Cobain. Both were flawed geniuses: sudden celebrities and fallen icons at a young age, undereducated and over-thoughtful, famous and tormented for their mix of fierceness and sensitivity, for their honesty. After Cobain died, and after Tyson bit Holyfield’s ear, rock n’ roll and boxing became lost and corrupted. Their lives are the stuff of classic Greek tragedy, and James Toback’s energetic and intimate documentary Tyson animates the drama in a perfectly distilled post-modern form.
There are no other characters in the telling of this story, and there don’t need to be: Tyson has enough intensity to carry the film, and his mind is enough of an enigma to provide an elaborate internal drama. The entire film is interviews with Mike and a smattering of archival footage. No one else speaks much, and Tyson’s relationships are all seen from his perspective. The first few minutes of the film outline Mike’s early life, and clearly demonstrate the patterns of his personality that will manifest throughout his life. He tells us about being robbed, and being totally shocked that a stranger would hurt him—Tyson’s innocent vulnerability on display. But by age 12, he was ready to lash back, and after an older kid tore the head off one of Mike’s pet pigeons, “That was the first fight I ever had. I won,”* he deadpans with a smirk—Tyson’s comfort with violence and his deadpan sense of humor forcing a loud, nervous laugh from the crowd. He began running drugs and robbing people, describing in startling detail the thrill of outsmarting his victims, and tells the story of getting picked up by the cops for a robbery he didn’t commit. “It’s not like I was an angel, but I didn’t rob her,” Tyson admits, revealing his self-criticism and honesty. “But there was nothing I could do. I was 12 years old with fifteen hundred dollars in my pocket and there was no way I could explain that.”
After his early trouble-making days, Tyson was rescued by legendary boxing trainer Cus D’Amato. As Mike talks about how D’Amato trained him physically and mentally—teaching him to be disciplined and ferocious inside and outside the ring—he begins to cry: with what Cus taught him, “I knew that no one would ever be able to fuck with me physically.” It would appear that D’Amato’s training was the first stage of Tyson’s tragedy: the only way to protect his child-like vulnerability, the only way to save Mike and create the legend of Tyson, was to turn his disturbing violent streak into his greatest asset and the basis of his entire being.
I won’t re-tell his entire, fascinating life, but the film races on through his life and career, with dramatic ups and downs, manipulations and betrayals, and some of the most astonishing boxing ever seen. The film is funny and frightening, exciting and touching, intellectually stimulating and powerfully visceral.
At the Q & A, Tyson said the film is “very hard to watch. I wouldn’t say I’m any better now—that’s for other people to decide—but that guy on screen is very scary. I never knew what people meant when they said I was so intimidating, but wow, now I see. . . . I’m just very humbled. I hope you guys like the documentary. [Standing ovation] . . . I can’t believe the success this film is having. I thought it would be hot on the corner of 125th Street. But actually, now I’m scared, because I’m an addict. I’ve been clean for a year, but I don’t do drugs when I’m depressed, when I’m in a dark place. I do drugs when things are going well, so right now I’m very scared. . . . I’m a megalomaniac, and if I don’t keep my ego in check, I will fall. . . . Do you guys understand that,” Mike sweetly asked. With this brilliant and sensitive film, Tyson is indeed proven to be a flawed and tragic figure. So yes, Mike, we understand. Thank you for exposing your soul and entertaining us, all these years.
*All quotations are paraphrased to the best of my dark-theater note taking.
- Mark Elijah Rosenberg, Founder & Artistic Director of Rooftop Films