TYSON: Less Bitey, More Talky

Sundance Film Festival: TYSON

“In Association with Defiance Entertainment.”

Those are the first words to appear onscreen following the closing shot of TYSON, and they couldn’t be more apt. In this documentary about the troubled (and that’s putting it kindly) former boxing champ, he remains defiant.

Sitting on a living room couch in a blue button-down, he admits to “extracurricular activities” during his marriage with Robin Givens, but then seems only to regret it because he lacked the “skullduggery”—a word he used, to my surprise, appropriately—to avoid getting caught.

And what about Desiree Washington, the Miss Black Rhode Island whom he was convicted of raping (for which he served three years in prison)?

Well, she’s “a wretched swine of a woman.”

“I may have took advantage of women before,” he adds, “but I never took advantage of her.”

Which prompted four black women from Texas, standing outside the Racquet Club after the screening, to wonder whether that meant he had raped other women, just not Desiree Washington. “That’s what it sounded like to me,” said one of them, a marketer for Haliburton.

I’ll let that job description hang there for a second.

Back to the film, Tyson doesn’t help his case by also saying, “I want a strong woman … and then I want to dominate her sexually.” He also calls Don King a “wretched slimy reptilian motherfucker.” (Okay, maybe there’s nothing wrong with saying that.)

What’s fascinating about the film, in case it’s not already apparent, is Tyson’s utter lack of a filter. All these years dealing with the media, and still he never holds back—except when he’s on the verge of tears, as he is several times during the film (mostly when he’s describing his many amateur and professional championships). As a result, choice stories abound, like when he ignored the maxim about not having sex the night before a fight. “I had sex,” he says, “but it must have been a prostitute because I had contracted gonorrhea.” (He doesn’t remember if she was a prostitute?) Anyway when he walked into the ring the next day, his crotch was on fire—and his opponent paid for it.

At another point, he says about his former trainer, “If he told me to bite, I’d bite,” without any apparent awareness that, you know, he bit a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear off during a fight.

What’s problematic, on the other hand, is that Tyson’s is the only voice in the film; he is allowed to tell his own story without critique. During Q&A, director James Toback (HARVARD MAN, BLACK & WHITE) argued that if he had interviewed Givens and Washington and others, the film would have turned into an E! biography. (I am morally obliged to mention here that the film includes scenes of Tyson walking on the beach at sunset … accompanied by the sounds of a twinkling piano.)

“I felt that Mike is such a fascinating person that there was going to be this one opportunity to get him to open up,” he said, accurately calling the film “a portrait of Mike Tyson as Mike Tyson presents himself.”

Such leniency should come as no surprise: Toback and Tyson, who will be at tonight’s screening, have been friends since 1985.