Movie Review: Tyson

Anyone going into this movie with negative expectations will come out floored. As the theme of Tyson states, Mike Tyson “is the most misunderstood professional athlete.” In one corner, the man known to the world as a rapist, ear biting, out of control animal: the youngest heavyweight champion in professional boxing history. In the other, a desperately sensitive and fearful man, trying to protect him self from a world that has failed to protect him on many levels. The very essence of James Toback’s 2009 monologue documentary, about and starring Mike Tyson, is Tyson’s inner conflict shown effectively with overlapping audio and the occasional split screens.

The movie opens with a young Mike Tyson in the ring – no shock there. In fact, the whole film is Tyson speaking about key moments in his life while archival clips support his points. Tyson still has that voice and diction… 15 minutes of the film pass. A Rocky Balboa type story plainly unfolds: Tyson had an impoverished, promiscuous mother and no father, so they moved to Brownville Brooklyn where Tyson was often held up by gun toting thugs – for his quarters. Tyson reminisces about this as if saying, “Kids will be kids.” What? So this is one of the normal things that happened? Okay, now the viewer is engaged.

An articulate, engaging man that looks terrifying is saying, “I just ran.” The chubby kid always picked on found solace in playing with pigeons because people scared him…until a bully rips the head off of one. Tyson fights his first fight and wins against a much bigger guy. “Everyone wanted to be my friend after that” and the bullying stops. The viewer will think, “This explains a lot: His fear of losing, desperate ear biting, fear and certainty that all he has to offer is fighting- kill or be killed.” What is odd is how young Tyson was and how he is so open in this movie.

After being busted at 13, Tyson gets arrested and ends up with the much needed father figure, coach D’Amato. Now, Tyson is surprisingly hooked on this “little white man,” while the viewer is hooked on Tyson- man and movie. Here’s how Tyson learned who he is: D’Amato trains young Mike physically, spiritually and lovingly. The respect in Tyson’s eyes is radiant. He was torn down with love and built back up with confidence. The wary Tyson succumbed to, “You’re going to be the champion of the word!” and changed his whole life.

“I turned my whole life over to boxing. I was an animal” and the subsequent clips prove this. A 14 year old Tyson in the 1980 Junior Olympics is a physical tiger, not a child. Tears in his eyes, Tyson chokes out, “At 13, 14 no one would bully me again. I knew that I would f*cking kill anyone if they f*cked with me!” This pain and fear of “being treated that way again…of being physically humiliated,” never leaves Tyson in his career or in the film. This fuels Tyson’s drive and career, while the death of D’Amato slowly but completely flat lines both.

The film shows Tyson, age 19, as a pall bearer. Who could Mike Tyson be if his adoptive father, mentor, trainer had lived another 5 years? Who could take D’Amato’s place? “[I was] scared, vulnerable, lonely. I felt naked to the world.” In slithers: Don King. Now that Tyson is a real character with potential, the viewer makes an internal groan, wishing to change the past. Though stating that King is a “reptile” and “leach,”  Tyson sounds like he’s gotten past this, like he has forgiven without forgetting, and has learned from this experience. It is very impressive to see. The only other time the powerful Mike Tyson name calls is with Desiree Washington, the woman who accused Tyson of raping her.

This rape charge is as synonymous with Mike Tyson as is the Holyfield ear biting. Tyson is more open than space, but very calm. “When I was falsely accused of raping that wretched swine of a woman, Desiree Washington, I lost my humanity. I lost everything.” Tyson describes the danger of feces laden punches and shower rapes in prison. Interestingly, Tyson says, “I have taken advantage of other women, but I did not take advantage of that woman.” Of course viewers will feel sympathy for this innocent man, sent to prison. He sounds innocent because he technically admits to a lot so he is probably not lying here, right? Wait, Tyson admits to raping other women… so he is innocent of raping Washington and the audience is supposed to believe him? Toback uses the sometimes jarring, overlapping voices and images int his film to ask, “Is Tyson being truthful?” Since he seems so earnest, could this be a case of Tyson being truthful to memory (the way he believes the events happened) as opposed to reality?

This film doesn’t need the audience to come to a conclusion. In fact, it supports questioning. Tyson reads poetry about having an addiction strength desire to be with a powerful woman, than dominate her sexually. So is Robin Givens right? She says in a clip to Barbara Walters that Tyson is “manic depressive” while Tyson sits there taking it. Tyson comments that he was taken aback and that watching his eyes and his head tilt in this clip, he (and the viewer) can see the hurt, the disagreement with Robin, a visible yet mental conversation to himself, then disappointed in Robin. All the while unwilling to say or do anything as he would look like the man she described. Who needs enemies with friends like…

Because this documentary is not balanced, there is no one to challenge Tyson, but he challenges himself as much as he defends himself. Tyson, to this day cannot comprehend why Desiree Washington attacked him. He can handle feeling guilty if a victim gets justice, but not her “false” justice. At no other point in the film is he so flabbergasted and unable to understand why he had to spend 3 years in jail. Prison affects Tyson so much that he comes out wild eyed and more terrifying and terrified than before. Toback keeps in the scene with the reporter yelling, “Put him in a straightjacket.” Tyson, already fidgeting and internally panicking to the extent it is the physical panic of an animalistic nature, starts shaking. The confrontation returns Tyson to prison culture, where the most primal threat is sexual assault. Tyson’s voice is hoarse, expressing great passion and pain. The viewer is knocked right back into the psychopathic Tyson who yells rape threats and grabs his genitals, as he sees this as his key to “survival.” This bellowing counter change acts to balance the film albeit in an extreme manner.

Tyson is an extreme guy though. He mentions extremism as the theme to his life and is very open. He is as candid as if he’s in a private confessional. Clearly this man is used to therapy and feeling quite comfortable in the warm glow of the camera lights because he is more open than that ocean where he reads poetry. Yes, the same Tyson who bit Evander Holyfield’s ear twice, for head butting Tyson several times in 2 different fights, reads poetry and talks about not being able to receive love as he can only give it.

For some reason, Tyson mentions following a “mysterious” lady into the bathroom where he “started performing fellatio on her.” Then, there is another “very dirty” woman who gives him gonorrhea but he doesn’t take care of it right away. Umm, why is this important? It’s funny; Tyson is intimidating to the extent that even on the screen, it is hard to judge him or react in any way other than shocked. Instead, there is more of a feeling like the viewer is a new therapist. Mike wants to continue therapy to maintain his health, but his former therapist is gone so Mike is now running through his life story from childhood and how fear plays a dominant role in his life, segueing into fighting, his criminal past and sexual exploits just so the viewer/therapist can catch up, so to speak. But then, who is going to tell Mike Tyson how to speak?

“I always try to aim through the back of my opponents head. It sounds like a brutal sport but it’s just a technique. It’s a art. When people hear you talking in that particular fashion they think of you as some brutal monster but it’s all about the skill, the accuracy… not because I like hurting people but because I like the after effect of fighting.” Who would have expected a sympathetic, psychoanalytical Mike Tyson fighting back tears and walking on the beach explaining that he wants to flood others with love? Who would have expected his voice to sound as comforting as his breathing does – like it belongs to him and is his own personal aid through life? This is a very human story. At points, it feels natural to step into Tyson’s world and into his inviting psyche. It takes a scene change of Tyson in the ring or a close-up of his face where the viewer sees the thick pads of muscle on Tyson’s face to realizes that, whether he likes unbalance and inner conflict or not, this man is physically intimidating. This is a 4 star movie worth seeing; Tyson haters will still like it, but leave the kids at home.

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From Bad Dirt during Winter's Bone and Saved by the Holy Spirit's Redeeming Grace

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