Tyson was released from prison about a month before Tyson premiered, and he quickly regained some of his championship belts. But the glow of his comeback faded rather hastily. First he lost to Evander Holyfield, then in their 1997 rematch, Tyson embarrassed himself by biting his opponent’s ear twice. His second marriage collapsed due to his frequent infidelity. His drug use got worse.
But he remained a figure of curiosity for filmmakers, like Oscar-nominated writer-director James Toback, who befriended the boxer at 19. Asking Tyson to play himself in Toback’s 1999 ensemble piece Black & White, and 2004 erotic character study When Will I Be Loved, the writer/director was convinced that Tyson was a worthy documentary subject, and conducted lengthy interviews with the disgraced boxer while he was in rehab. The resulting 2008 film, also called Tyson, captures Mike in a reflective, emotionally vulnerable headspace. He cries when talking about what D’Amato meant to him. He looks back at Washington’s rape accusations with repulsive anger, dismissing her as a “wretched swine of a woman.” There’s no hint of remorse, only defiant insistence that he’s innocent.
If the 1995 Tyson was a blandly-executed celebrity biopic, then Toback’s superb documentary reflected a very male-indie-auteur fascination with raw, complicated masculinity. Despite the somewhat blinkered perspective, this Tyson remains the most compelling and haunted depiction of the man, hinting at the uncharted depths of an athlete who grew up bullied and unloved, transforming himself into a monster so that he couldn’t ever be hurt again. The documentary embodies a pre-#MeToo age in which problematic men were chronicled with pensive awe, their personal failings and incredible talents given equal weight.
Tyson’s rave reviews helped humanize the diminished superstar, setting in motion his cultural reappreciation. Soon after, Tyson delivered a scene-stealing cameo in The Hangover with nary a public protest. Now viewed as endearingly nutty, Tyson parlayed this career revamp into a one-man show that was brought to Broadway by, among others, Spike Lee, who directed an HBO special in 2013, Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth.
Wearing a suit and a shy smile, Tyson acknowledges in the special the dark place he was in when he filmed Toback’s documentary, and no doubt Undisputed Truth was intended to highlight the older, wiser Tyson who’s in a better place. But it’s hardly convincing—more a carefully manicured, notably defensive piece of image rehabilitation than a revealing or poignant confessional. Not that Lee doesn’t try his damndest to bulldoze us with the sales job. The crowd obediently claps at each of Tyson’s feel-good statements. They chuckle when he talks self-deprecatingly about his well-documented lows. (Ha ha, that Robin Givens sure was the worst, huh?) As for his rape conviction, well, that’s all in the past, okay? “I did not rape Desiree Washington,” he says as if reading a prepared statement, “and that’s all I have to say about this.” In other words, don’t pay attention to the Old Mike Tyson: What’s important is that the New Mike Tyson is off drugs and has a great family. There are genuinely touching moments like when, near the special’s end, he reflects on the horrible 2009 death of his four-year-old daughter Exodus. But Undisputed Truth is designed to be the opposite of a cautionary tale: It’s a redemption story, another thing Hollywood loves to peddle, no matter how forced it comes across.