Is it possible for a person to win Best Actor, even though they are playing themselves, in a documentary? Watching Mike Tyson tell his story in his own unflinching words is no less exhilarating than watching one of his own fights. When Tyson recounts that he learned to fight out of necessity, talking slowly as he fights back tears, stating: “After that, I knew no one was ever going to fuck with me again,” I dare you to not be moved.
James Toback’s Tyson is a film of remarkable candor and depth. You may be suspicious that Tyson would favor himself and leave out details that would incriminate his character. Think again. After just a few short minutes into the film, it’s clear that Tyson’s biggest critic is Tyson himself.
With remarkably honest detail, Tyson remembers his troubled youth in Brooklyn, where he got picked on and beat up regularly. But after that first street fight (the circumstances of which involve a horrifying story about a pigeon), he knew he was out for blood. In and out of jail dozens of times before he was 13, Tyson was given a shot by Cus D’Amato, an old white guy who took Tyson in and treated him like a son. D’Amato taught young Tyson the ropes; the mechanics of fighting, the attitude, the hunger, everything to shape a brilliant fighter.
So as I’m watching the film, which uses swift split-screen and voice-over editing, my one thought was: when do things go wrong? If there is a moment that Tyson started to decline, it was with the passing of D’Amato. In the years following D’Amato’s death, Tyson became the youngest champ ever, slept with hundreds and girls, contracted STDs, blew millions of dollars, and became the vulgar, unstoppable Mike Tyson that many of us recognize today.
But prepare to have your judgments overturned. Tyson admits taking advantage of women, but denies the rape of Desiree Washington, which landed him a three year prison bit. He admits having anger issues, but still found it inappropriate when wife Robin Givens called him out on Barbara Walters. Hell, Tyson even makes you understand why he chomped on Evander Holyfield’s ear (well, sort of).
The point is, this is an honest account of a deeply misunderstood and conflicted man. And believe me, you don’t have to be a boxing fan to enjoy the picture. In fact, there were several older, white women in the audience with me, and our tears fell just the same. A-