Director aims to change Iron Mike Tyson's image

James Toback's new documentary 'Tyson' features former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Mike Tyson talking about his life. Toback says he hopes the film will cause people to reconsider the controversial fighter.
Image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

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.

James Toback
James Toback has known Mike Tyson for almost a quarter century. He says he's one of the most complicated people he has ever met.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

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.'"

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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.

"It doesn't pretend to be an objective portrait. It's Mike Tyson's version of his own life and psyche and mind and spirit, presented through my aesthetic."

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."

Tyson in the ring
Mike Tyson was known for his lightning speed and hard punches as a boxer. As a teenager he once scored a knock-out in just eight seconds.
Image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

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.

Split screen
James Toback used split screens and overlapping audio several times during the film.
Image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

"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.

Tyson and Toback
James Toback shot his interviews with Mike Tyson while the retired boxer was in rehab, as this Toback thought it was one of the few opportunities he would have to keep Tyson in one place long enough to make a film.
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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.