Bright Lights Film Journal

“Just Another Man”: On James Toback’s Tyson

“Toback, to his credit, and despite the empathy he feels toward his subject, doesn’t pull his punches.”

I first met Mike Tyson three years ago at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. I’d seen him fight many times, and was in awe of his speed and power, his ambition and success, at the same time as I was troubled at how elemental, how primal he appeared, embodying as he did all the unchecked impulses that have fueled humanity’s worst excesses — the killer instinct, the will to win at any cost.

Tyson was in the ring teaching youngsters the rudiments of boxing, fulfilling a public service agreement in lieu of doing more time for one of his many run-ins with the law. He was no longer champion. His glory years were behind him. He’d been in and out of jail more times than anyone could count. And his fortune, the hundreds of millions he earned by scrambling other men’s brains, had been squandered or stolen by Don King and other “leeches,” as Tyson calls them, supposedly administering to his welfare.

That afternoon, I was, even though surrounded by all manner of celebrity gawker, able to observe Tyson unmolested. He was not especially tall, but he was exceptionally broad, with a huge head adorned by the now-famous Maori tattoo, and hands and feet that looked more like paws than any known human appendage. And his physical presence — the knowledge that here was Mike Tyson — seemed to electrify the molecules around him. But rather than give off an air of intimidation, he emanated vulnerability.

Tyson and I spoke for half an hour, and he couldn’t have been more kind. Gentlemanly and polite, he seemed as interested in me as I was interested in him and went out of his way to put me at ease. He was somewhat wary at first, natural under the circumstances, but there was no bluster, no bravado, no hostility, no preening ego or bad attitude. Tyson was someone who, if not quite at peace, saw himself as just another man, no better or worse. It was a bit of a shock to discover that Tyson wasn’t the monster I’d been led to believe. Instead, I discovered that he had been misunderstood, misrepresented, misconstrued.

James Toback’s long-awaited documentary, Tyson, is an attempt to set the record straight. Toback has known Tyson since he was a teenager and had already cast him in two of his films, Black and White in 1999 and When Will I Be Loved in 2004. He is also the sort of compassionate interlocutor (although a silent and invisible presence in the film, which is a self-analytical, stream-of-consciousness monologue) an armored character like Tyson needs to let down his guard.

Toback culls the newsreel archive to show Tyson at different stages of his career, recounting the former champion’s storybook rise from the mean streets of Brownsville to Cus D’Amato’s gym in the Catskills to the bright lights of the Vegas Strip and beyond. The director hits all the highs (youngest man, at age 20, to win the heavyweight crown) and lows (the Barbara Walters interview, the rape conviction, the Bite of the Century) that are synonymous with Tyson’s tale. And Toback, to his credit, and despite the empathy he feels toward his subject, doesn’t pull his punches. He simply points his two cameras and lets Mike be Mike. The champ parades his man of a thousand faces, so that we get to see all sides of Tyson, often on split-screen and just as often in rapid succession, as he morphs from the violent Mike to the gracious Mike to the self-aware Mike to the clueless Mike to the self-pitying Mike to, finally, the Mike who is incomprehensible, most of all to himself.

It’s easy to view Tyson as the anti-Ali, as someone who seems to have taken perverse pleasure in middle-fingering the world, who appears to stand for nothing, to believe in nothing, who seems more at home receiving lap dances in dives than awards at testimonial dinners. But that dime store analysis does a disservice to Tyson, no less than to Ali, as Toback’s revealing documentary makes clear.

Beautifully filmed, Tyson, which runs 88 minutes from opening to closing bell, leaves one with the impression that it’s impossible to fully understand another human being (just as it’s impossible to fully understand ourselves). We can sit in judgment while lounging in our armchair or rattling around our ivory tower, but Toback’s willingness to acknowledge and make allowances for human frailty, writ large in Tyson’s story, makes his documentary an intrinsic document, as it also reminds us of the world of possibility, no matter how tenuous, at our fingertips. Or, as Tyson observed when Toback showed him the film for the first time: “It’s like a Greek tragedy. The only problem is that I’m the subject.”