At a recent sneak-preview screening of Tyson, the new Mike Tyson documentary that comes out today, someone sitting near me said something incredibly stupid.
It was after the Q&A session, during which the director, James Toback, who has been friends with Tyson since meeting him on the set on his film The Pick-Up Artist 20 years ago, told the audience that he thought his friend was not a rapist. Tyson, you'll recall, served three years in jail for in the nineties for allegedly raping (or "date-raping," take your pick) 18-year-old beauty queen Desiree Washington.
"The whole rape thing--obviously, to me, there's no question that he didn't do it," Toback said. "Over the years he's told me over and over again. You can't bring up the word or anything remotely close to it without his going off. He says he can't let go of it. Think about it: you know, you haven't done something and you're in this horrifying three-year nightmare of incarceration for something you didn't do--how do you ever get over that?"
You don't, the film suggests. Tyson, of course, had plenty of issues to begin with. His rough upbringing is a matter of record, and he was never really anyone's idea of a nice guy. But Toback and Tyson (who's the only person interviewed in this cinematic "self-portrait") both seem to agree that going to jail screwed him up far more than he'd been screwed up before--especially because he was innocent.
"One of the interesting things he says about that afterwards, that those tattoos--he hated America because it was the American criminal justice system that put him there. And the feeling that [it had] happened not because of something he'd done, but because of something he was wrongly convicted of. And that was the real turning point in his life, more than being heavyweight champion, more than anything. That's what snapped him. That's what moved him into multiple voices, and an understanding of insanity, and an actual being overtaken by insanity," Toback said.
Thanks to Toback's patient interviews and innovative sound editing, you hear those multiple voices in the film. Tyson spends quite a bit of time defending himself. He lashes out at enemies, calling Don King a "wretched, slimy, reptilian motherfucker" who "would kill his mother for a dollar." But he also criticizes himself for being an "extremist" and for botching his second marriage. "I don't know how to live in the middle of life," he confesses.
Regardless of where you stand on the rape case, Toback's film is a fascinating character study. The director's hands-off technique--he prompted Tyson to talk about a subject, he explained, then let him go on about it until he literally had nothing left to say--has paid off richly. I never thought I'd get as deep into any athlete's mind, let alone Mike Tyson's.
Which brings me back to the stupid comment I mentioned earlier. After the Q&A, a woman exiting the theater behind me said she couldn't believe Toback thought Tyson was innocent. Now she had to dismiss everything she'd just seen on screen. Toback, you see, was clearly "biased."
Are you kidding? Character witnesses are "biased"--and yet we value their testimony. Should Toback refuse to take a position? Frankly, I'd be worried if he spent all that time with Tyson and didn't have an opinion. Barbara Kopple examined the rape case in detail in her even-handed 1993 TV documentary "Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson." Tyson is a different type of non-fiction film, but it's no less valid. And to call the entire thing crap because you disagree with the director about one especially touchy part of the story--well, I'd say you're biased.