Director aims to change Iron Mike Tyson's imageby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
Film director James Toback says he wants to change the way the world sees Mike Tyson.
The former world heavyweight boxing champion known as Iron Mike has been mired in controversy for what he did inside the ring. He also spent years in jail for things he did outside the ropes.
Now Toback has made a film, "Tyson" which opens tonight in Minneapolis. In it Tyson makes his own case that he has been misunderstood.
St. Paul, Minn. — James Toback has known Mike Tyson for some 24 years.
As a young man Tyson wanted to visit a film set, and a friend brought him to a movie Toback was shooting.
Toback said the former champion is one of the most complicated people he's ever met.
"He is also probably one of the five or 10 most recognizable people on the planet," he said. "So he's a kind of iconographic figure who has the special virtue of illustrating my favorite Andre Gide phrase, 'Don't understand me too quickly.'"
Toback said the Mike Tyson of popular image has very little in common with the Mike Tyson he knows. So when he got a chance to have Tyson tell his own story, Toback leapt at the opportunity.
The movie is essentially Tyson with his distinctive facial tattoo speaking to the camera about his life. Sometimes it's several Tyson's all at once, talking and talking and talking.
The film also intersperses tape from his fights, and archive footage of some of the infamous incidents in Tyson's life.
James Toback said it's not a balanced profile of Tyson.
"It doesn't pretend to be an objective portrait," he said. "It's Mike Tyson's version of his own life and psyche and mind and spirit, presented through my aesthetic."
Toback said it's true that Tyson is seen as a monster by many people.
"He is known primarily as three things: a great heavyweight champion, maybe the greatest, a convicted rapist, and an ear-biter," he said. "So two of the three are in the monster category and the third one is potentially in the monster category."
Toback argues that, while Tyson was convicted of rape, the case was flawed and despite his wealth Tyson was poorly represented.
He also argues that the shocking ear-biting incidents during a fight with Evander Holyfield were provoked by his opponent repeatedly head-butting him. Toback believes Tyson is good at heart.
There are plenty of people who would argue with Toback's conclusions. He does however present an intriguing portrait of a complex and troubled man who rose from a life of poverty and juvenile crime to enormous fame.
Toback used the hours of tape he gathered to present a splintered view of the fighter.
"The split screens and the overlapping dialog struck me as the most persuasive way of illustrating the fractured consciousness, the multiple selves," he said.
The audience sees Tyson's explosive power as a boxer, and it hears him talking about mentally preparing for a fight.
"The closer I get to the ring, I'm more confident," he says in the film. "Once I am in the ring, I am a god - no one could beat me."
But the film also includes an outburst Tyson made in front of a phalanx of cameras where he loses his temper at a heckler and threatens foul retribution. It's horrifying.
Toback said he noticed that after the film screened at the Sundance Film Festival and received a standing ovation, Tyson was very quiet.
"I said, 'What have you been thinking?'" Toback recalls. "And he said 'Well, I was thinking as I was watching the movie tonight people always used to think I was crazy and they'd say, "I'm scared of that guy, he frightens me." And I always thought, "What are they talking about? Why do I frighten them? What are they scared of?" And tonight I watched the movie and I said to myself, "I'm scared of that guy."'"
James Toback said, however, his movie, "Tyson," does seem to be changing minds about the fighter. Audience surveys found people saw Tyson more positively after viewing the film, particularly women. The challenge he said, is getting people into the theater to see it.
- Morning Edition, 05/15/2009, 6:40 a.m.