2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘Tyson’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

Mike Tyson in “Tyson” (2019)

“Tyson”

Directed by David Michaels

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 9, 2019.

Not to be confused with the 2009 Mike Tyson documentary “Tyson” (directed by James Toback), this new “Tyson” documentary (directed by David Michaels) is also about Mike Tyson, but it’s an updated look at the former boxing champ’s life. There’s also another movie called “Tyson,” which was a 1995 HBO biopic, starring Michael Jai White as Tyson. The filmmakers of the Michaels-directed “Tyson” movie made a huge mistake by choosing this title for the film, since it’s bound to confuse people who might think the movie is the other “Tyson” documentary. So with all these “Tyson” movies in the world, how is this second documentary different from the first one?

For starters, the Michaels-directed “Tyson” documentary doesn’t cover anything new in Tyson’s pre-2008 life that wasn’t already covered in the Toback-directed first “Tyson” documentary. The Michaels-directed “Tyson” documentary should’ve had a title like “The Redemption of Mike Tyson.” That’s essentially the theme of the film, as it pushes a narrative that Tyson is now an upstanding family man, after having a long history of violence and abuse against others. Tyson is interviewed in the documentary, as well as his current and third wife, Kiki; his daughter Mikey; his son Amir; his biographer Larry Sloman; his addiction specialist Sean McFarland; and his longtime friends Dave Malen, Al B. Sure and Damon Elliott. It’s a very one-sided narrative, because Tyson’s critics are not interviewed at all.

The 2009 “Tyson” documentary was unique because Tyson was the only person interviewed for the movie; the rest of the film consisted of archival footage. The result was that the 2009 “Tyson” documentary was rambling and flawed, but a riveting and unflinching look at Tyson’s troubled soul. There were things he said in that first documentary that would be cause for alarm in this #MeToo era. For example, he called his rape accuser Desiree Washington “wretched swine,” and admitted that although he “took advantage” of many women, he didn’t take advantage of her. He also vividly described how he liked to sexually dominate women.

Even though Tyson was convicted in 1992 of raping former beauty contestant Washington, and he spent three years in prison for it, he still denies committing the crime. His denial is more muted in Michaels’ “Tyson” documentary (which doesn’t have the victim-shaming language the first “Tyson” documentary had), but Tyson’s anger over spending time in prison for the crime is still palpable.

His short-lived, disastrous first marriage to actress Robin Givens (who was married to Tyson from 1988 to 1989) is portrayed in the Michaels-directed documentary as mostly her fault, even though Tyson has admitted in previous interviews that he physically and emotionally abused her. In this documentary, Givens and her mother are described as nasty, lying gold diggers who targeted Tyson to con him into marrying Givens, because she allegedly lied to him about being pregnant. Although Tyson shed tears in both documentaries when discussing his traumatic childhood, his past mistakes, and deaths of loved ones, director Michaels portrays Tyson in a much more filtered, sympathetic way than what viewers see in director Toback’s “Tyson” documentary, because Michaels allows several Tyson family members and associates to constantly defend him and insist that Tyson is one of the sweetest people they’ve ever met.

In the Toback-directed documentary, Tyson was divorced from his second ex-wife, Monica Turner, and had not yet begun the next chapter in his life as a professional entertainer. Tyson made a comeback in pop culture with his memorable cameo playing himself in the 2009 blockbuster comedy film “The Hangover.” In 2014, Tyson became the co-creator and star of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim animated series “The Mike Tyson Mysteries.” In the Michaels-directed documentary, Tyson admits he was still strung out on drugs during his “Hangover” comeback period, and it took him several years and multiple stints in rehab to get to where he is now.

Tyson claims he’s now clean and sober, and that his kids (he currently has seven children by three different women) are now his top priority. (One of the movie’s opening scenes is of Tyson accompanying his daughter Milan to her tennis game.) His wife Kiki is described as a “breath of fresh air” and an “angel,” but like a carefully Photoshopped and curated Instagram account, her marriage to Tyson, as it’s presented in this movie, looks too good to be true. The cracks show when Tyson admits that he’s never been faithful to his wives and partners, and that infidelity is one of the main reasons why he’s had a string of failed relationships. Kiki also acknowledges that she and Tyson often argue, but family members (including her parents) say she’s strong-willed and is no pushover.

Kiki describes their rocky courtship as something she chose to endure in order to get a so-called happy ending. They started dating when she was 19, and he was 29, and he broke her heart when he abruptly married second wife Monica in 1997. After Monica and Tyson divorced in 2003, Kiki and Tyson reunited and got married in 2009, the same year that Tyson’s 4-year-old daughter Exodus tragically died from an accidental strangling by exercise equipment. It’s a loss that Tyson says he’ll never get over, and his most sympathetic moment in the movie is when he cries as he talks about losing Exodus.

One of the recurring themes in both “Tyson” documentaries is how he describes himself as a “pig” but also “generous” to a fault, and how he lost millions to what he calls “leeches” in his life, which led to him declaring bankruptcy in 2003. Based on the lavish spending by him, Kiki and ex-wife Monica (he openly talks about these spending sprees in the film), his money problems won’t be going away anytime soon.

Tyson has stayed out of trouble for years, so maybe he really has changed into someone who no longer abuses drugs, alcohol or women. Maybe he really is no longer the conflicted bully that he had the reputation of being for most of his life. But if there’s another documentary about him in 10 years (and please let it have another title besides “Tyson”), we’ll have to see if this reformed Mike Tyson is real or is a façade.