Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: Is “Tyson” Still a Lean, Mean, Fighting Machine?

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The role of art, film, and journalism — in short, the documentary — is to help the viewer better appreciate the world around him or her, right? Well, putting this very fundamental notion to the test is the doc Tyson, which hit theaters this weekend. It’s an unapologetically positive presentation of boxer Mike Tyson’s life and career. I mean, this is a guy known for being the most vicious fighter in the history of the violent sport, who was convicted of rape, who repeatedly had outside-the-ring melees, and who got kicked out of the sport (temporarily) for biting Evander Holyfield’s ear during a 1997 bout. It’s directed by James Toback, who has been Tyson’s friend for some 20 years, and who has gone on record as saying Tyson does not try to be objective, but instead is more of a presentation of the way Tyson himself sees things. The film is also produced by Tyson’s two managers.

Mike Tyson in James Toback's documentary
A still from Tyson by James Toback.

I went to the film’s premiere last week in Manhattan, and was pretty impressed by what I saw. I enjoyed the camera work, the fascinating way Tyson talks about himself and his life and his tale of rising from the gutter to the throne. The audience gobbled it up, laughing when they were prompted to laugh, and even cheering from time to time. And when it was over, Tyson himself walked up to the screen and was interviewed by writer Joyce Carol Oates, who asked fawning questions. She could even be heard whispering to Tyson: “People respect you, they really do.” Oates and Toback have both called Tyson a “Shakespearean” character, and they didn’t really bother to hide that they were both glorifying and objectifying him at the same time.

But what really got to me was Tyson’s physical presence in the room. The guy walks in, and he looks like some warped version of the lean, mean monster in the ring: which is to say, he’s really overweight. I mean, he’s verging on Marlon Brando territory. And what gets me about that is there’s no evidence of it in the film, even though I’d argue that it’s an incredibly important fact about a man known for his physical prowess and agility. Either he’s gained all this weight in the months since shooting stopped, or Toback artfully shot him standing on a terrace and sitting on a couch, so that he wouldn’t look so… transformed. I am betting it’s the latter, and that the movie was deliberately seeking to hide the truth to protect Tyson’s vanity. Am I wrong? I’d like to know. So, although I actually enjoyed the film, after seeing the real Tyson, I’d like to add a subtitle to anyone interested in going: Tyson: How He and His Handlers Would Like You to See Him.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Vlacheg

    FOREIGNID: 18257
    are you trying to say that purpose of this movie is just to hide a truth which has been known all this years? That he is rapist and alcoholic…? He isn`t, this movie is made because to wash away lies from his surname, he has been manipulated, by women, managers and twoface “friends”.
    This comment has been edited for inappropriate content.

  • Kathryn Hassanein

    FOREIGNID: 18258
    Magnificently athletic and famously violent, Mike Tyson is simply Toback’s latest black avatar. As such, Toback likely couldn’t “see” him as a past-his-prime Marlon Brando character. “Shakespearean” has a nicer ring to it. Despite his intimate, theatrical way of presenting himself and his art to the world, query whether Toback– a nearly 65 year old man who never thought he’d make it past 40– is truly self-aware. Toback’s openly self-centered, obsessive personality would much prefer to revisit his orgy-laden days with Jim Brown in the 1970s than look forward toward an uncertain and unglamorous aging process. Methinks that any editing flowed from a self-protective instinct as opposed to any sort of external pressure.

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 18259
    Interesting, Kathryn: you know, your comment makes me think a documentary about Toback could be pretty compelling (if it were made outside of his control!).