On Thursday night I attended a screening of the documentary Tyson, set to be released later this spring. The film is an intimate look at famed boxer Mike Tyson. Tyson talks candidly throughout the film about the public events and personal relationships that have made up his life.
Viewers remember both the acclaim and fanfare Tyson achieved as a prizefighter and the media attention he received for his rape conviction, marriage to actress Robin Givens, and biting of Evander Holyfield's ear. As a talented and controversial figure, Tyson has managed to grab our attention with every jab in the ring and poor decision outside of it.
In this film, filmmaker Jame Toback brings together all of the obsession and spotlight into a condensed focus on the former boxing star. Toback allows Tyson to tell his story as he chooses, to speak for as long as he wishes about a topic, and to apologize or explain wherever he deems necessary. The film, in this way, is markedly simple in its concept and construction. It grants Tyson a voice and a medium to give his side of things.
In fact, Tyson's voice is the only one we hear in the documentary at all. In a discussion after the film's airing, Toback addressed some of the production decisions and issues he considered. He acknowledged that interviews with members of Tyson's entourage, such as outspoken promoter Don King, may have provided some compelling quotations and insights. But ultimately Toback wanted to keep the focus tightly and sharply on the protagonist.
The only other person that Toback says he really considered including on screen was himself. Toback and Tyson's relationship dates back many years. Toback revealed that the two have bonded over their addictive personalities and destructive decisions. Ultimately, Toback seems to have determined that since Tyson's voice was so familiar, and his comments so intriguing in their own right, that this story was best told by the man alone.
Now 42, Tyson appears to be back on track. The film follows him chronologically, showing his rises and falls, his successes and failures, his best days and his worst. It's Tyson's free verse speaking style and brotherly tone that elicits some compassion from the audience. Toback said that when the film ran at Cannes the crowd gave Tyson and Toback a ten-minute ovation afterward. That's testimony to the power of Tyson's words; he makes you believe in him again.
In some ways, Toback's decision was a relatively easy one. Once he decided to make this film, and got Tyson on board with the project, he turned to old video to help paint the picture. The film is full of scenes from old boxing matches, news footage from Tyson's arrest, television interviews, and shots of those who surrounded Tyson at one time or another. Without having to go back and interview those involved in these moments, Toback runs the footage to introduce the topics at hand before returning time and again to Tyson for his comments and reflections.
Unlike other documentarians, Toback doesn't have to do much to frame the story. Because Tyson is so honest and revealing, the director says his job wasn't that difficult. He hoped that from just a short mention of an event or person would itself stir up enough old emotions in the boxer that Tyson would speak without prodding. He says he even stood as far away from the lens as possible in order to avoid distracting Tyson, but probably also to resist the urge to intervene and comfort Tyson at times when he had visible difficulty speaking about a subject.
Toback explicitly relies on the information and prior judgments and skepticism that his audience attaches to Tyson. What Toback does a remarkable job of is showing Tyson's side to this tale without outwardly trying to convince you that Tyson should be forgiven or heralded. The most powerful moments of the film are actually the instances when Tyson admits that he was wrong and made foolish mistakes and decisions.
For much of the film, you find yourself so engaged in Tyson's tale because it feels like a personal conversation. He's seen seated on a couch in a rented condo, his gloves off and his emotions unguarded. You walk away from this film recognizing that an emotional struggle accompanied every match Tyson ever engaged in. He may not win you over with his story but , like at his last bout in 2005, he's going to go down swinging. And that's why you may find yourself cheering for him again at movie's end.