Harvard Alum Packs a Punch with 'Tyson'

I bet you never thought you could like Mike Tyson. Fallen pugilist who destroyed his career, convicted rapist—not to mention an ear-biting demon in the ring—Tyson has a bad rap. Societal mores of compassion advocate human understanding in the face of seriously bad behavior; they tell us that people are complicated, that we should delve beneath the surface of society’s most troubled and attempt to connect. But for most people, the only way to interact with such a terrifying person is superficial at best.

Documentary filmmaking provides the opportunity to truly deliver someone else’s reality, even if that person is as seemingly insane as Mike Tyson. James Toback ’66 is particularly attuned to this power. After Harvard, he went on to become a highly controversial Hollywood screenwriter and director, meeting Mike Tyson on the set of his 1985 film “The Pick Up Artist.” There they began the friendship that would finally yield Toback’s most recent film, “Tyson,” a documentary that peels away the seemingly infinite layers surrounding the legendary boxer, revealing an alarmingly human specimen coiled in its center.

As in his fictional films, Toback is slow to reveal the psychological interior of his controversial protagonist. “This sort of ‘let’s root for this guy’ in movies as if it were a baseball game has always struck me as a kind of truly low-brow notion of what art is supposed to be,” Toback says. “What happens with the most interesting works of art, I think, is that you start with a sense of deception, of half-knowledge, preferably with the deck stacked against your protagonist, and then in the course of whatever you’re watching or hearing, you gain a greater, deeper understanding of who that person is.”

Toback, like his subject, has something of a bad reputation. Associated in Hollywood with drug cults, hustlers, and gangsters, he makes no attempt to hide his own vices. His first feature film was called “The Gambler”; he penned the screenplay for “Bugsy”—the Oscar-winning 1991 film about celebrity gangster Bugsy Siegel’s ventures in Vegas—and he wrote and directed “The Harvard Man,” a semi-autobiographical account of an epic sophomore year LSD trip. According to Toback, when Tyson first met him, he recognized him as “that white guy in the middle of the orgies at Jim Brown’s house.”

Somewhat ironically, Toback awards Tyson a gaze he has no desire to direct toward himself. “I don’t give a fuck,” Toback says, when asked about his own image. “Life is too short to worry about your enemies or the people who don’t understand you.”

“Tyson” stemmed from the mutual understanding between Toback and Tyson of the multiplicity of voices within the mind. This is “madness” rather than schizophrenia, according to Toback, who talks openly about his experience with LSD that left him both “enlightened” and permanently haunted. This parallels Tyson’s traumatic three years in prison, after which he was left with an acquired split-personality.

The film mirrors this confusion stylistically, using split-frames and multi-layered images during interviews to create a sense of interior chaos. While Toback’s adventurous editing does create this feeling, it also prevents narrative clarity by too aggressively emphasizing Tyson’s jumbled mental state.

The film does, however, grant Tyson the chance to tell his own story in the presence of someone with whom he is comfortable. Through the help of incredible archival footage of fights and anecdotal interviews, the audience gains access to lingering memories of Tyson’s fragility, the true measure of his talent, and the forces beyond his control that unfairly contributed to his downfall—his violent childhood in poverty and the emptiness that followed his short-lived glory. Five minutes later, however, Tyson regresses to his familiar routine. “I’m a beast. I’ll eat his children. Praise be to Allah,” he spews, and we’re back to square one.

Throughout the film, Tyson appears on his white leather couch with leopard-print pillows, talking breathlessly about his Brooklyn childhood, where a trip to juvenile detention was “like a class reunion.” He tells some funny and heartbreaking stories about protecting pigeons he was caring for from his friends. Despite the laughs, though, Tyson comes off as self-indulgent and overly eager to paint the unfortunate surroundings in which he grew up. Toback claims this was strategic, causing the audience to be directly confronted with their dislike toward Tyson, then allowing it to erode as he breaks down and wins their compassion.

“Maybe you don’t end up loving him, but you end up understanding him in a way you didn’t at the beginning,” Toback says. “That, really, is what I was hoping—not that I would redeem Mike Tyson in the eyes of the public, but rather that people would say, ‘This is a far more complicated and fascinating person than I had ever imagined.’”

—Staff writer Mia P. Walker can be reached at mpwalker@fas.harvard.edu.