Tyson is about the processes that make Mike Tyson.
I gots to show you man, get up in there, move that head, man.
Come on to me man, but when you come, man, you gotta come for blood, man.
-- Mike Tyson, Canibus' "Second Round K.O."
To be honest, I'm just a dark guy from the den of iniquity. I've been there my whole life. I've been all around the world a couple of times and around the block once. I'm just a dark, shadowy kind of figure.
-- Mike Tyson, "Mike Tyson, a Monster in Paradise" (5 May 2002)
"I was always sick." As a child, Mike Tyson means, recalling his hospital stays, for treatment of "problems with my lungs." In the hospital, he says, he was visited by his mother and her friend, as well as his brothers and sisters, "probably eight of them." His father, well, he might have been his father, "I was led to believe." When the child Mike Tyson went home, it was to Brownsville, in the Bronx, a "very tough, very gruesome kind of place." Here the sick little boy was mocked and bullied and mugged. "I think," he says, "that's why people like myself become more assertive in life, become more aggressive. They don't want that to happen to 'em no more."
With this opening, it appears that Tyson will be what you expect. The former world champion boxer, ex-convict, and eternal tabloid target will reflect on his life and submit his own accounting. Whether he takes such measure based on the numerous counseling sessions he's endured or the stories he's read about himself, or even his own musings on his motives and nightmares, the documentary seems poised to reveal the man.
And then, it turns. Slowly and repeatedly, James Toback's film turns less inward and more outward, more a series of projections, mirror images and contradictions than a consistent evaluation of a life and consequences. It is fascinating, sinuous, artful, and unresolved, a combination of confessional-mode close-ups, archival fight footage, and occasional shots of a preoccupied-seeming Tyson on the beach. It uses some too obvious tactics, like split screens, multiple images of Tyson, layers of his voice. It's vexing and enthralling. And it's not what you expect.
Instead, Tyson is a contemplation on what it might mean to be Tyson. He surely has his versions of that experience, which he describes in clumps of words, sometimes pleading, more often pensive. He also performs that experience, ducking in and out of his own storytelling. Because of his traumatic childhood, he suggests, sent to a juvenile center at 12, facing abuses by fellow inmates, he learned to defend himself. His success as a boxer is a function of these skills, self-taught and then famously developed by his mentor Cus D'Amato. He attributes his many triumphs to his "cunningness." He remembers, "It was a big thrill to outsmart them, to out-think them."
Watching him fight, you believe this. In early bouts -- as a junior Olympian, a young heavyweight -- his "thinking" appears superbly focused, his punches brutal and precise, his body hard and almost alarmingly agile. Iron Mike won his first 19 bouts by knockout. He was world Boxing Champion at 20. Though he admits that he wanted to stop ring fighting almost as soon as he started ("It was too nerve-racking"), he took D'Amato's advice and encouragement to heart. "This guy had me cleaning my room," he marvels, "If he told me to bite, I bite. I'm like his dog, he broke me down and rebuilt me." This rebuilding was premised on his own dearth. Cus had him watching films of Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey and Rocky Graziano (even, he says, Errol Flynn). "I never really had an image of myself," he says, "I took images of great men and took qualities from them."
In taking these images, Tyson says, he made misjudgments. While he believed, like many boys, that great men conquered women, he says he discovers the opposite is true. "I never knew that conquering so many women takes so much from you," he muses, as opposed to giving status or satisfaction. This assessment doesn't exactly reassure you that Tyson has figured out something crucial about "women." Though he suggests that he and Robin Givens both got a raw deal ("We were kids," he says, and the media passed "a judgment on both of us"), his dismissal of the rape conviction that sent him to prison for three years is at once alarming and illuminating (just what it illuminates, however, remains ambiguous). "I was falsely accused of raping that wretched swine of a woman," he insists, while the film offers up footage from TV reports, previously seen in Barbara Kopple's 1993 film, Fallen Champ -- Desiree Washington meeting Mike Tyson during a dance rehearsal the 1991 Miss Black America Contest.
Tyson doesn't pursue this aspect of Tyson's story, but instead focuses on his understanding of the consequences -- his terrifying time in prison, surrounded by "people who don't care what they do," inmates who are "borderline sociopaths." For Tyson, differentiated from Tyson, this experience seems of a piece with the violence that shapes the man's existence. The film overlays his description of time in the hole (where he started talking to himself) with multiple voice tracks, a heavy-handed way to underline the point he makes plainly enough: "I know it sounds so contradicting, but it's the life that I know. Insanity is my only sanity."
This ordeal, according to Tyson, follows on the familiar beginning of Tyson's end, the death of Cus D'Amato in 1985, which left Tyson alone with scheming managers and promoters (the usual suspects, including Bill Clayton, Jim Jacobs, and Don King appear in old clips; when Tyson describes King as "a wretched slimy reptilian motherfucker," it seems a completely sane verdict). Tyson takes responsibility for his poor fighting after prison, his performative excesses before the press ("I want to eat his children"), and his recurrent acts of self-demolition. While he sees his work in the ring -- at least the good work -- as a source of pride ("I knew the art of skullduggery, I beat these guys psychologically"), he also indicates that he has remained less able to put these skills to use outside the ring. "I was never able to cipher a problem out," he asserts, "Everything got too cryptic."
This seems the prevailing point, which is not to say it's the only point. Calling himself an "extreme addict personality," he submits that no one else can comprehend him. As he started fighting "to take care of my bills, basically," Tyson says, he was less and less invested in his own performance, which he calls "totally disorganized." (This seems an apt description of his infamous second fight with Evander Holyfield, when he bit his opponent's ear, twice: even if Holyfield was engaging in illegal head-butting, as Tyson alleges, the response was abjectly self-destructive.)
Tyson tells a familiar story at film's end, that he's found peace in being a father to his six children. But much as you wish his kids well and hope he's actually on his way out of the cycles of depression and self-doubt that have plagued him, Tyson's redemption or sanity are not really what the film is about. It is, instead, about the processes that make him, the representations that persist like a palimpsest in Tyson.