Mike Tyson Explains Himself

It’s hard to resist the primeval lure of “Tyson,” a documentary in which Mike Tyson candidly revisits his exclamation point of a life.

Why are we so drawn to the former prizefighter, despite ourselves? Maybe it’s because Tyson’s devastation of his opponents was so disconcertingly beautiful. It gave us the same troubling fascination we have for atomic bomb explosions — those perfect plumes of destruction. As we watched Tyson render his victims unconscious within minutes, we turned him into an archetype, an unthinking monster.

So who wouldn’t want to hear the “monster” revisit the indiscretions, abuses and outright disasters that came to define him — in the ring and out? 

In a way, “Tyson” is the postmodern equivalent of “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” the traveling show of the 1880s, in which Geronimo and Chief Sitting Bull re-enacted their primitive ways for ogling, paying audiences. But instead of Native American legends making stoic spectacles of themselves, we have Iron Mike — the facially tattooed minotaur! Instead of choreographed reenactments of Custer’s Last Stand, we have archival footage of Tyson’s misadventures in and out of the ring.

There’s a notable difference. Tyson’s the narrator, this time — not William Cody, not the white establishment. This is his version of what happened, racist media be damned. It’s Grendel’s tale, not Beowulf’s.

But “Tyson” begs some cynical questions: Is this Iron Mike’s ‘Wild West’ hyperbole? Why did he agree to make this documentary? (He’s an executive producer on the project.)  Did he really arrive at this moral epiphany in his life, or does this art-house howl of the heart — already a cause célèbre in festival circles — help the debt-strapped former heavyweight in other ways?

What makes James Toback’s documentary especially powerful is the ambivalence it produces in us. Tyson moves us as much as he appalls us.

Who could not be touched as he relates his sad childhood in the mean streets of Brooklyn, where he was repeatedly robbed and beaten up? Who could be unaffected by his barely stifled sobs as he talks about Gus D’Amato, the hard bitten, soft-centered coach who transformed him from juvenile delinquent to world champion?

But what are we to make of the movie’s implication that Tyson’s grief over D’Amato’s untimely death — the old man never saw Tyson become champion — explains his lifetime of peccadilloes? As Tyson has it, D’Amato’s passing left him forever slithering on the slippery slope between his best and worst impulses.

Hence the downward spiral of predatory womanizing, drug and drink binges, and licentious spending. Hence the rape of Desiree Washington in the early 1990s, for which he served three years. Hence everything.

In director James Toback’s approving narrative, Tyson’s turning things around. He’s the proud father of six kids. He looks forward to a grandchild. As he says this, birds twitter on the soundtrack. The leaves of a hedge behind him meld into a mushy, Hallmark-esque backdrop.

As for his culpability in the Desiree Washington affair, Tyson says he maintains his innocence. (Washington is a “wretched swine of a woman.”) His reasons for his darkest moment in the ring, in which he bit off a portion of Evander Holyfield’s ear? His opponent was illegally head-butting him. He got mad. He blacked out.

And on and on, it goes, this circus attraction of a redemption story — first the lurid and terrible, and then Tyson’s vulnerable response. Like those audiences in the 1880s, we get what we paid for: a vicarious encounter with the Other.

But we also get a troubling message about ourselves. Tyson’s inability to truly grasp his role in the equation of his mistakes is just an extreme version of our own. He remains as poignantly human as he is mortifying.

He affects us, despite everything.