Last night, M and I watched a movie that we were totally unprepared for. Not only was it surprisingly well made, but it packed an emotional punch on par with a right hand blow from the film’s subject, Mike Tyson, disgraced former heavyweight champion of the world and probably the world’s last truly great boxer. Though it’s billed as such, Tyson not a documentary at all. As the film’s director James Toback explained, it’s more of a self-portrait a la Van Gogh or Gaugin; Iron Mike does not set out to paint a pretty picture of himself, but rather a brutally honest one from his perspective…Tyson is how Tyson sees himself.
A kid from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn with 38 arrests to his name by age 13. A raging fighter who will do anything to win. A young man overwhelmed by his emotions and interest in sex. A felon falsely accused of rape. A cokehead and womanizer who blew $300 million dollars. And, most importantly, a kid who allowed others to take advantage of him.
What’s inspiring here is that, while it’s obvious from the footage used in the film that Tyson was locked up in a cage by society, he doesn’t use the film as a chance to throw counterpunches. With the exception of Desiree Washington (who accused him of rape) and Don King (who nobody on the planet likes anyway), Tyson spends most of the movie beating up on himself. He blames himself for everything…he admits he has been a jerk, admits he was out of his mind when he bit Holyfield’s ear (twice) and admits he let people steal his money.
He can blame himself all he wants, but Tyson makes it obvious that he really was never given a chance to be any other way. And society is to blame. His mother was neglectful, his father was never in the picture. He became a criminal in Brownsville because he didn’t want to be tormented and/or killed by the thugs on the streets. But the police and the courts obviously just saw another wild nigger that was better off locked up and would be no good to anybody. Thankfully, the greatest trainer that ever lived Cus D’Amato didn’t see it that way. He made Mike Tyson into one of the best heavyweight fighters of all time. And as Tyson explained, tears caught in his throat, D’Amato did something more important…he taught him to be a gentleman. However, D’Amato died when Tyson was 19 and arguably when he needed him most. On his way to becoming the youngest heavyweight champion of the world, the “leeches” started sucking his blood.
It would be hard for anyone to understand what it’s like to be 20 years old and have the world willing to do anything you say. It’s even harder to understand being in that position when only seven years prior you were dead broke and thought you wouldn’t live to see age 16. Tyson does his best to explain it all and he does a phenomenal job. He comes off like a man whose mind is a jumble of contradictions. He comes off like a man who is now 40 years old and looking back wondering how he could have screwed up so much. He comes off as a man who deeply wants to love people, but finds it hard to trust anyone.
Powerful stuff, to say the least. M and I both said, once the movie was over, that we feel bad for ever thinking Mike Tyson was the monster the press made him out to be. Monsters do not make movies about themselves like this. Human beings do. Is it any wonder, then, why Don King has never made a movie of this ilk about himself?