Bloody Brilliant

James Toback’s documentary Tyson, opening today, offers a harrowing look at the troubled boxer and finds something surprising: He knows what he did wrong.

Jeff Robbins / AP Photo

Boxing is a blood sport that draws a varied mix of society, from profound writers and readers to the ignorant and the illiterate. That might surprise those who are unaware of how many like to see who can throw a punch and which fighter can take one. The human inclusiveness drawn by this sport of intentionally giving pain and intentionally standing up to it was quite easily seen at the recent screening of James Toback’s superior documentary, Tyson, which opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles and meets all high level expectations.

When Mike Tyson says that everything that happened to him is his fault and that he can blame himself, we are in not only a new land for a depiction of a black athlete but one very fresh for a celebrity today.

Figures as different as one of our very finest writers, Joyce Carol Oates, showed up, as did Christopher Walken, a film actor and dancer in a long photo finish with the most original performers his profession has to offer. Especially elevating was the arrival of Smokin’ Joe Frazier, who wore a black cowboy hat, was in great spirits, and moved along in the melancholy rhythm radiating the permanent wounds he received while proving himself one of the greatest ring gladiators of the age. Also, there was the most well-known fly in the buttermilk, Michael Steele, recently elected and still controversial head of the Republican National Committee.

That very range of Americana in the flesh is an example of the epic powers of attraction had by boxing. The film itself deserves all of the audience it may receive because there is nothing quite like it.

Tyson powerfully joins the short list of films about black athletes that pursue human truth through whatever shit, grit, and mother wit must be acknowledged or explored in order to allow the human heart and the troubled—or troubling—human soul of the subject to appear before us in full complication. It is preceded by Spike Lee’s sometimes astonishing Jim Brown: All American (2002), which is quite candid, intimate, complex, and rightfully puzzling in the clarity of its achievement. There is also one of the best Ken Burns documentaries, Unforgivable Blackness (2005), about Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion and a man whose willingness to put himself in harm’s way has remained second to none.

Tyson is in that league. What makes it unique and unsettling is its freedom from the sentimentality that often overwhelms When We Were Kings, the 1996 documentary about the 1974 fight held in Zaire, which was then under the bloody dictatorial thumb of Mobutu. In that suspenseful fight, the entire global sporting world witnessed Muhammad Ali inarguably prove his ring genius for strategy—while literally thinking on his feet and enduring all that was necessary to bring down the apparently invincible George Foreman.

When We Were Kings is saved by the commentary of George Plimpton and Norman Mailer who bring it through its many bad cuts, its intriguing but insufficiently engaged abundance of personalities, and its maudlin perspective. The insights given by these writers take us under the mosquito nets so that we see and feel the large and small bites left from the stings of life.

Tyson is guaranteed the same thorny sense of interwoven human foibles and luminous gifts by the fighter himself, the documentary’s only narrative voice. Tyson’s tale is that of a partial innocent, a romantic, and one turned brutally naïve during his early attraction to the stunted world of criminality, where human value and vibrancy are imprisoned behind the iron mask imposed by self-serving cynicism. That naïveté remained as Tyson became a dupe overwhelmed and dazzled by the sexual access and ass-kissing that inevitably appear with the seemingly magical poof of international fame and big money. Over and over, the boxer proves himself to be uniquely insightful about what happened to him, how poorly he handled his celebrity, and how willingly he allowed his living space to be overcrowded with yes-men whose tasks were dual.

They were there not only to satisfy themselves by taking as much as they could get away with, but they were also there to satisfy the appetites of the champ. His awareness of the destructive two-way street down which entourages travel is surprising. Tyson now knows that he who is bitten while petting the head of a favorite parasite usually becomes addicted to the taste of his own blood.

We see what drew mythic statements about Tyson’s talent, the controversy that arrived as he began to lose control of himself, and his near crashing and burning. It is, however, Tyson’s largely candid insight into himself that is quite unique. We can watch Jim Brown moving from icon to human being in Lee's film but we can never imagine him admitting to the kinds of personal shortcomings that Tyson lays out free of self-justification or the shifting of blame.

When the boxer says that everything that happened to him is his fault and that he can only blame himself, we are in not only a new land for a depiction of a black athlete but one very fresh for a celebrity today, where apology and promises of forthcoming therapy seem the norm. Tyson also knows what was expected of him as a young black man assumed to be wild and crazy. He shows unexpected awareness and restraint at certain times, but later in his career, when his boxing skills are eroding, he becomes overwhelmed by playing the part of the violent boogeyman whom fight fans loved to hate. This was a calculated reversal of the bad-boy mask worn by Ali as he went in the opposite direction, from public animosity to heroic affection. At that point, Tyson had become a scavenger spewing bile and pus. He was consumed by a sorrowful bitterness and cynicism that could only be responded to with large purses. The windows of his world had been painted black.

The narrative shaped by Toback is quite sophisticated in its editing. Between the images and what Tyson says, there is a truth greater than the sum of the two. It underlines the sensitive person behind the blowfish persona while also revealing the misgivings that puncture the viewer like the thorns on the stem of the rose. We see and hear the tenderness of the man as he recalls his rough and tumble childhood and how painfully bemused he was by the cruelty that seemed so easy to some. Tyson has trouble talking when his emotion for his white mentor, Cus D’Amato, is revealed as a love that transcends race and environment, which is exactly why sports can share with art the greatest human meaning of all.

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It doesn't stop there. Even in our pornographic era we discover that we can still be startled by Tyson because he has no desire or need to shock. His obsession with sexually dominating powerful members of the opposite sex or women better educated than himself provides us with inside maps to the psychological roads traveled by certain men from the bottom as they stumble upon what they have been told is the best of everything. Delusions beset them as they enter the boudoirs of females shallowly prized for their runway looks or understandably honored for the skill, imagination, and endurance that took them up career mountains craggy with difficulties. This is a ritual in which such a man delivers his savagery so effectively that he falls victim to a cluelessly sad assumption: Guaranteeing female ecstasy will insure the station of a noble.

Even pimps know better than that. Part of Tyson's continuing trouble is that he does not have enough confidence in his poetic sensibility. More inarguably high-quality women are out here than the fighter seems capable of imagining. A quantity far from small would find that soulfully delicate sense of life equal in its force and magnetism to the bare facts of Tyson's sexuality. That lack of awareness is perhaps the worst thing that happened to Tyson: His troubles resulted in the champion losing faith in his imagination, his compassion, and his ability to deeply empathize. Those were the qualities that both liberated him from his grounding in criminality and individuated the man in sparkling ways that were a charming victory over the numbing power of the streets.

Tyson sees his tale in tragic, not sociological terms and is right when he describes his story as a Greek tragedy—except that he is the hero, which is no boast because it means that he is destined to fall. All "explanations" or influential forces are mysterious and internal. Motivation only arrives in clusters of hints. That is why the boxer perceives all of his troubles as stemming either from fear of pain and humiliation or from losing the discipline that was his bulwark against the soul-deep throes of anarchy.

The champion’s low-keye but emphatic description of vengefully stomping Don King in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel will delight those who feel the slime of the promoter on their skin every time they see him or hear his name. Yes, it will probably be amusing. That is, until the realization that a man as out of control as Tyson was, when snatched into action by his anger, is a danger to everyone—to himself and even those who "deserve" an icy draught of the medicine reserved for thieves and liars. That must have been a terrifying assault and a very, very bad day for the bellhops. With less luck, Tyson would be serving a life sentence and King would be dead. Not quite worth the millions of dollars the promoter was supposed to have stolen.

But, for all that, I think the film is perfect for the Obama era, in which race no longer needs to be the definition that overrides the individuality of the person, as it once did back when everyone from Jack Johnson to Jackie Robinson to Ali had the task of gracefully carrying the entire ethnic group on his back or was accused of demeaning all Negroes if bad behavior got into the media.

The documentary makes it clear that Mike Tyson is a man alone and always was alone and will never be less than that, which is the engine that provides the power and the poetry and the shocking human fallibility of Tyson.

Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006 his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. He is presently completing a book about the Barack Obama presidential campaign.