How ‘Mike’ on Hulu gets story of boxer Mike Tyson wrong

After Muhammad Ali, there is no boxer who has shaped popular culture more, for better or for worse, than Mike Tyson.

When he was still a teenager, cameras were trained on him when he lived in the home of manager/trainer/guardian Cus D’Amato, and over the years he has been the subject of many documentaries, made with or without his collaboration. He has appeared as a cameo and occasionally as a straight performer in television, films and music videos, best known as the subject of DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince’s “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson”. He’s been a reliably entertaining guest on countless late and late-night talk shows. He also created a one-man stage show Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth, directed by Spike Lee and filmed as an HBO special; pigeon racing in Animal Planet’s Taking on Tyson; starred in the Adult Swim animated series The Mike Tyson Mysteries; hosted the podcast Hotboxin’ With Mike Tyson and has been a guest on many others. (Not to mention a recent viral video of him punching a fellow passenger who annoyed him on a plane.)

Despite all the ups and downs of his career and life since sportswriters first caught the eye of him, he was never long out of the public eye and never lacked for fans, even after his rape conviction in 1992, which put him in prison for three years.

Now, as if we needed more, comes Hulu’s limited series Mike, the second biographical drama dedicated to the fighter after 1995’s Tyson, starring Trevante Rhodes in the title role and Harvey Keitel as D’Amato. It was created with obvious research, but of necessity some imagination: you can recreate the fights and archived news footage and interviews, including an appearance on Joan Rivers’ late-night show and Barbara Walters’ headline-grabbing sitting with Tyson and actor Robin Givens (Laura Harrier), who was briefly his wife. You can search the record for odd lines of dialogue. But every private conversation is a matter of invention and every performance a matter of interpretation. Any biopic is a bad place to start looking for the truth.

What’s more, by his own admission, Tyson is such a contradictory figure – sensitive, violent, insecure, arrogant, thoughtful, impulsive, disciplined, undisciplined and, when he came out, literally a boy in his man’s body – that it’s hard to frame to pull him. (“You may have done bad things,” D’Amato tells him, “but you have a good heart.”) As much as the filmmakers may try not to take sides, the very existence of “Mike” and the fact That it is (largely) narrated from its subject matter – sometimes in the context of the stage show, sometimes directly into the camera within a scene – creates an implicit partisanship.

And aside from Tyson, whose voice and body language Rhodes effectively captures, every other character (at least in the five of eight episodes up for review) is a supporting character; Some get enough screen time to make an impression, but they come and go. Few scenes last long enough to gain dramatic weight, and relationships are hinted at or simply stated rather than explored. That’s not to say some aren’t affected – the actors make sure of that, though they often have to work against the show’s stylistic explosiveness. Rhodes has some cute scenes with Chédra Arielle as his sister Denise, and a near-death scene between Tyson and D’Amato that could have sprung from a Depression-era boxing movie is sentimentally effective:

“Listen to me. You succeed when you become champeen; I only succeed when you don’t need me anymore.”

“I need you, Cus. I do. I love you Cus.”

But you never get close to things. In fact, that might be asking too much of a project like this that wants to swallow a whole life rather than explore a representative aspect in depth. It’s a common enough problem with biopics.

Directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Steven Rogers (who co-wrote the film I, Tonya), “Mike” begins with an echo of Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” as Tyson throws punches in a dressing room mirror before he takes his Stage enters show that will run through the entire series. (The version here is less mean and self-serving than the one featured in the HBO special.) In fact, Scorsese feels like an inspiration throughout, with short scenes and montages driven by narrative, as in “Goodfellas”; the R&B soundtrack accompanying scenes set in the mean streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn; the slow-motion parade of the faces of the fighters being hit; the unrelenting restlessness of the camera work; and last but not least the casting of Keitel. Coincidentally or not, Scorsese had long planned to direct a Tyson film starring Jamie Foxx; The project is now set to become a Scorsese-produced limited series – this time starring Tyson, who had bad words for “Mike” on board.

In many ways, Tyson’s story is broadly like any sports or show business film (including the 1947 John Garfield classic “Body and Soul”) as a story of a child from a humble background whose success leads to ruin and eventually to… salvation leads. (That airline video notwithstanding, Tyson today presents himself as a self-deprecating, self-reflective family man with a sense of perspective and humor who goes well beyond the need to throw down punches to feel good.) From a bullied kid he becomes a villain street fighter (killing one of his beloved pigeons drives him mad for the first time); a career as an elementary-school thief puts him in a reform school, where he discovers boxing; his teacher recognizes his talent and takes him to D’Amato, who had coached champions Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres. D’Amato takes Tyson under his wing and into his household. Together they set out to make him world champion, though D’Amato dies before that happens – his ghost appears to encourage him – leaving the young man helpless. Tyson’s need for a father figure is an issue.

Marriage to Givens makes them a power couple, but it falls apart when power struggles come into play. Single again, Tyson poses and dates, if that’s the right word, lavishly. (“I’m sorry, Mr. Tyson,” he was told, “we’ve never put a hot tub in a limousine before,” but money gets the job done.) Promoter Don King (Russell Hornsby) senses an opportunity and falls in – a surrogate father figure. (“Cus taught me to box, but he couldn’t teach me how to be a black man in America.”) He ultimately proves toxic, but the character is given an inspirational speech, and Hornsby imbues him with an air of tenderness .

Weakened by the progress of his rake, an unmotivated Tyson travels to Tokyo where he loses his belt to Buster Douglas. Then comes Desiree Washington (Li Eubanks). The fifth episode, which concerns the rape case denied by Tyson and many supporters, takes the wise, even necessary, step of looking at events through the eyes of the victim. It’s the change of perspective that the show needs, and one that prompts new thinking not just about Tyson, but the culture that reflexively supports a celebrity, let alone a man versus a woman. (One particularly nasty meeting of Louis Farrakhan is partially re-enacted.)

What the three previously unreleased episodes will represent I can’t say, but there are drugs, a face tattoo, the dissolution of his boxing career, and a measure of peace in his actual future. (Also a cartoon.) But “Mike” seems intent on ticking off the bullet points of Tyson’s life; its ambitions feel serious, even if the end product doesn’t always live up to the mark.

And if you’re interested in what made Mike Tyson a successful boxer, aside from the ability to deliver and punch, or even what makes boxing interesting beyond belts and paydays, you’d best look elsewhere – and there is no shortage of places to see.


Where: Hi

When: Anytime, starting Thursday

Valuation: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under 17) How ‘Mike’ on Hulu gets story of boxer Mike Tyson wrong

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