30 for 30: One Night in Vegas

Tupac's appeal was based in part on his toughness, along with his vulnerability, determination, and passion, all qualities that Reggie Rock Bythewood's documentary finds as well in Mike Tyson.

30 for 30: One Night in Vegas

Airtime: Tuesday, 8pm ET
Cast: Mike Tyson, Lashelle Sanders, Michael Eric Dyson, Chris Connelly, Maya Angelou, Bruce Seldon, Gloria Cox, Al Sharpton
Network: ESPN
Director: Reggie Rock Blythewood
Air date: 2010-09-07

"I was just happy I had won." Remembering his fight against Bruce Seldon, Mike Tyson does look happy that he won. That night, after the referee stopped the fight just 109 seconds in, Tyson says, he just wanted to see his "brand new baby daughter," Rayna. And after that, he planned to "hang out" with some friends, including Tupac Shakur.

Tyson's sense of triumph is short-lived in One Night in Vegas, as it was the night of 7 September 1996. He soon learned, with the rest of the world, that Tupac had been shot. The artist's death six days later further shocked his friends, family, and those fans had thought of him as "indestructible," as Chris Connelly puts it here. Tupac had survived so much already, so much hardship and violence, that it seemed he'd live forever. His appeal was based in part on his toughness, along with his vulnerability, determination, and passion, all qualities that Reggie Rock Bythewood's documentary finds as well in Tyson.

Taking that coincidental "one night" as its point of departure, the film -- which premieres as part of ESPN's 30 for 30 series on 7 September -- begins with two spoken word artists outfitted as if to represent the boxer (hoodie sweatshirt) and hiphop artist (head rag). Sometimes in unison and sometimes alternating, they lay out the plot: "What should have been a lifelong bond was guillotined by gunfire, / Two rounds to the head, four in total, / Three more than Tyson needed to defeat his opponent." The mixed metaphors and heavy-handed allusions seem almost to exacerbate the pain: per Tupac's own book of poetry, Joshua Brandon Bennett insists, he "was ripped from the earth like a rose petal unwilling to budge from the concrete soil."

These recitations are framed by comic-book style panels (by Steve Beaumont), images of invincible heroes in the ring and on the block. Connecting Tyson and Tupac's brilliant careers, these split screens also suggest their complex lives, managing a range of performances. According to Michael Eric Dyson (making his point in his own famously performative style), "In one sense Mike Tyson is Tupac in boxer shorts and Tupac is Iike Tyson with a microphone." Their similarity, he goes on, has to do with their being "Misunderstood by the society around them: the society embraces their genius while it's afraid of what they might ultimately represent."

One Night in Vegas considers what they might represent, through pronouncements by Nas and Al Sharpton, a story told by Mickey Rourke (concerning a night of hard drinking with Tyson), and regrets expressed by Afeni Shakur ("I miss his phone calls in the middle of the night," she says, in a very brief appearance), and a friend of Tupac, Lashelle Sanders. She is especially distraught to recall that night, witnessing the altercation in the lobby of the MGM Grand (the one caught on surveillance tape and replayed frequently since Tupac's murder). Joan Morgan says that Tupac, like Tyson, "would get drunk on his own mythmaking, and his mythmaking is what made him such a beautiful rapper."

The film makes the case that both subjects are beautiful -- and misunderstood. If their life paths aren't precisely parallel, the film finds coincidences. Both men go to trial on rape charges, Tyson convicted of same in 1992 and Tupac convicted of sexual abuse two years later. Both men appear to be self-aware in unexpected ways, at least according to the stories swirling around them. Maya Angelou remembers visiting Tyson in prison ("I'm a mother, I have a son") and being impressed that he's been reading James Baldwin and Richard Wright. And a clip from Arsenio has Tupac marveling that he had been advised by Tyson from prison to "calm own." Tupac's eyes go wide: "I was like, 'Whoa, it's time for me to calm down if Mike Tyson heard about me, from jail.'"

It's funny but also terrible and poignant, of course, that Tupac is at least intermittently aware of the course he's on. (That said, Suge Knight's comments here do nothing to suggest he's aware of anything he's done or doing: he's as cartoonish and self-loving as ever: "When they start shooting," he mumbles, "I grabbed Pac and pulled him down," and, in case you all have forgotten, was grazed by a bullet himself, keeping it gangsta and all.)

For his part, Tyson demonstrates again the lucidity that makes his uneven behavior so frustrating for observers. The youngest heavyweight champion ever describes the context for his own fame as a function of history and commercial culture: "My ego would tell me it was because it's because I'm so great and fabulous, but in actuality, it happens in everybody's time. It happened in Joe Louis' time, it happened in Jack Dempsey's time, everybody grasps onto a particular fighter," he observes. "Joe Louis came around and basically changed the world how people perceived black athletes." Tyson has also changed perceptions, though his long and chaotic career makes it more difficult to parse the effects.

Tyson's self-understanding is punctuated by his apparent sense of lingering guilt over Tupac's fate. "He came to see me and we were getting ready to go hang out and," he says, "I felt that if he probably [was] just watching it on television, everything would have been just gravy, you know." And yet, the film suggests (however indirectly) the draw of the fight -- any fight -- has to do with familiar aspirations and masculine performances. Chris Connelly offers a heartbreaking analysis of the business of fighting. "It's great when we have men who represent bravery outside the ring," he asserts.

It's great when people are pioneers whether they're Jack Johnson or Joe Louis or Muhammad Ali. But we watch heavyweight boxing because a guy could hit somebody else harder than we can imagine anything being hit. And Mike Tyson did that again and again and again. He didn't just knock people out. He destroyed them. And we got to watch.

We got to watch. Though we might have higher hopes as to what Tyson and Tupac might ultimately represent, in their strength and their intelligence and their peculiar energies, they always-already represent this too -- our desire to watch.

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