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.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen