The Zen of Mike Tyson

You move too slow, bang thirty seconds behind / Run if you want, fuck up, that ass is mine / Play the game, learn the rules or you’re bound to lose / Everything is everything, it’s a storm nigga.
— American Cream Team, “Middle Finger Attitude,” Black and White soundtrack

“Inhale the positivity, exhale the negativity.”
— Mike Tyson, Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles

What can Mike Tyson be thinking? I mean, aside from the obvious — that after Saturday night’s upset of Lennox Lewis by Hasim Rahman in South Africa and the contracted rematch to follow, he’s that much further from another career-changing bout with Lewis. My question is less specific and more prosaic. But it’s also more far-reaching, it has to do with more than immediate career goals. I’m wondering what’s going through Iron Mike’s head concerning his movie career, that is, the image-clean-up campaign he’s apparently been running through appearances in movies.

The impetus for my question came when I saw him the other night in Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles, an amiable, slow-moving non-action film starring that most leathery of Aussie celebrities, Paul Hogan as Mick Dundee. Tyson’s cameo was a surprise, but more than that, it was peculiar. I think we can agree that Tyson is way past being embarrassed these days, but there’s something distressing about watching him play disarming and humble to Crocodile Dundee, who subsequently gets to kick a bit of ass in this movie. Even amid the many incongruous scenes in the film, Tyson’s stands out. It goes like this: Mick and his adorable blond-headed, very Mick-like son Mikey (Serge Cockburn) are strolling through Will Rogers Memorial Park (how they come to be in LA is, well, less than electrifying) when they happen on Tyson, meditating in the sunshine. Mick and Mikey sit down with Big Mike, who proceeds to teach them the path to inner truth and happiness: the screen goes weird and hallucinogenic for a moment, as Mick Dundee is apparently overcome with enlightenment. He beams at Tyson, who responds approvingly: “That’s the ticket, daddio.”

Say what?

Let’s put this in a couple of contexts. First, there’s something about the black male celebrity making fun of himself that (apparently) warms a cross-over audience’s hearts: if you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it a hundred times. Just recently, you’ve seen Orlando Jones in Say It Isn’t So; Jim Carrey’s three genius “son” in Me, Myself & Irene; and Shaquille O’Neal’s 30-second appearance at the end of Freddy Got Fingered, in bed with a hookered-out Julie Hagerty (who plays Tom Green’s much-beleaguered mom). Whining about his itchy nipple piercings and her sexual demands, yeah, okay, he’s yet another embodiment of the familiar culture-wide anxiety about Dennis Rodman. Long live Rodman’s Wedding Dress Doll.

The second context is Tyson’s own. No one who has paid even the slightest attention to his troubled and hugely visible career can be surprised to see him playing himself in a movie. He’s been doing it a lot recently — in Wrestlemania XIV and Royal Rumble in 1998, and then in a couple of more “legitimate” (read: expensive and well-promoted) productions in 1999, Ron Shelton’s Play It To The Bone and James Toback’s Black and White. In the former, he walks by boxers Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas, beating each other to pulps. Tyson flashes his crooked teeth and waves like he’s king of the world.

In the latter, Tyson infamously beats down Robert Downey, Jr., after he hits on Tyson during a sort-of improvised party scene. This bit of violence earned the boxer a lot of press, some of it outraged that he had agreed to play himself as a psycho, and some wondering about the “reality” of the scene (is Tyson really such a brute?). There was a certain self-consciousness in the performance, or rather, in its use in the film, which makes most everyone look ugly and searching for an identity in this race-obsessed, racist world. But Tyson looks terrible, out of control and unhappy and used, while at the same time, aware enough of exactly how he does look — to the media and the legal system that routinely chew him up and spit him out — that if he even looks like he’s coming on to a white woman, he’ll end up in prison.

Black and White doesn’t stop there, however. As if to underline Tyson’s own frank assessment of his state, the film couples him up at the end with its most venal character, a conniving anthropology grad student named Greta (played by Claudia Schiffer), who, by all appearances, fucks black men for her research. A brief image of their dinner date serves as apt coda for a film in which everyone uses one another… everyone, that is, except Mike Tyson, who is the only performer playing “himself,” and the only one who seems incapable of using anyone, so transparent and true is he. The movie surely uses Mike Tyson — his grand scale of celebrity, his “untamed” public image — to demonstrate differences between “black and white,” and especially, jungle-fevery attractions between black men and white (young) women, all by way of what the black men have to offer, namely, hiphop and violence.

It’s not news that the film’s observations are dated and often offensively reductive, but the focus on Mike Tyson is troubling. On one level, the movie uses Tyson in much the same way that it uses Rich Bower, the hiphop producer played by Power — to note the related processes of celebrity-making and fear-mongering that tend to accompany the careers of prominent black men in the U.S. And indeed, the film presents Mike Tyson as some bizarre Yoda-figure, experienced in the ways of prison survival and the rules of street payback. When Rich comes to him for advice — at the gym, no less, so they are surrounded by weight machines and mats — Tyson holds forth on a man’s need to do what he’s gotta do. In Toback’s dreary upscale New York, Tyson’s incongruity is precisely the point — he’s out of his element in a room full of social beings and much more at home in a room where all focus is on his big black body, contained for the moment.

Tyson’s appearance in Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles is different. Very different. In the perfectly landscaped greenery of a park in Los Angeles, Mike is all smiles and sunshine, happy as pie to be helping this fish-out-of-watery white guy and his remarkably well-adjusted child. Certainly, Tyson’s appearance in Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles is more bizarre than in other films where he’s “playing himself,” and that is the point — here’s Big Mike making fun of that same aggressive image that was so efficiently exploited in Black and White. Here’s Big Mike being aware that people think he’s an ear-biting, road-raging man who gets paid to beat up other men, not to mention a convicted rapist.

There are well-rehearsed reasons for Tyson’s publicized monstrosity, many of them articulated by Barbara Kopple’s smart documentary, Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson (1993). From jump, Tyson was rewarded for aggressive behavior, labeled an “animal,” and trained to attack. Born in Brooklyn in 1966, Tyson spent his childhood as a street hustler, slower than most of his friends and prone to fighting and getting busted. Sent to live and train with the legendary Cus D’Amato when he was only thirteen, Tyson won multiple amateur bouts (24-3) before turning pro at 18. In other words, he didn’t have much of a childhood: he was, as he puts it himself, a “money-making machine.” In the well-focused hindsight afforded by the documentary, interviewees — including former trainer Teddy Atlas — recall Mike’s violence and hostility beginning at an early age, all pointing toward the film’s focus, his conviction for raping Miss Black America contestant Desiree Washington in 1992 (for which he served three years of a 10-year sentence).

Kopple’s film argues that while it’s understandable that Tyson “turned out” the way he did — angry, frustrated, quick to attack — it’s also not an excuse for his behavior as an adult. But even more than making a case for or against Tyson the individual, the film is an indictment of the combinatory “systems” that have produced him — the orders of behavior and morality that he has learned from the street, boxing, and media.

Are there lessons to take away from Tyson’s ongoing meltdown? (And it is ongoing, for no matter what comebacks he might manage, his place in pop cultural history is secure.) One lesson has to do with the relationship between celebrated black men and mass media: from Michael Jackson to OJ to Darryl Strawberry, the stress and breaking points in of this relationship are repeatedly made clear. Another is about boxing itself: notoriously corrupt as a business, it provides spectacular entertainment in and out of the ring; Tyson is a violent figure, but over and over, he’s both rewarded and derogated for his violence. And still another lesson may be about reality: it’s never quite so real as it appears.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Tyson’s saga is his own perception of it, at once awkward, insightful, and revealing. He tells interviewer Nick Charles, that he considers himself “below average”. However performative or real such protestations may be, Tyson describes himself in terms of his role as spectacle. He purports to be mystified that “[people] expect a lot out of me. Every now and then I do outrageous things and it appears to be fascinating to them. I don’t see how people think I’m fascinating. How am I fascinating? What in the world is fascinating about me, besides I fight and beat people spectacularly. Other than that, what’s so fascinating about me?”

You have to hand it to Tyson — this is exactly the right question to ask.