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  • Feature: Tyson Director James Toback

    Wed, 22 Apr 2009 17:26:17

    Feature: Tyson Director James Toback - Director James Toback puts on the gloves in defense of Mike Tyson

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    As a long-time supporter and friend to Mike Tyson, acclaimed independent filmmaker James Toback (Fingers, When Will I Be Loved) has had his share of confessional moments with the ex-boxing world champ over the years—but none too revealing as the interviews compiled together in Toback’s fascinating and dissecting biographical documentary Tyson.

    Says Toback, 'It was basically part of the nature of the movie: [Tyson] as revealed through himself, through his own language, through his own memories, through his own voices.'

    Approaching the film as a therapeutic release, Toback wanted Tyson to tell his story through his own unfiltered words, without any counter subjects backing up or denying the boxer’s claims. From an outsider’s perspective, this may seem a bit one-sided, but Toback is only concerned with Tyson’s lone, meandering thoughts, no matter how subjective it may appear. Toback affirms, “It was basically part of the nature of the idea of the movie, which was to do a portrait of him: [Tyson] as revealed through himself, through his own language, through his own memories, through his own voices. That was a stylistic and psychological decision.”

    In order to establish an easing, comfortable setting for Tyson to bleed his innermost private feelings, similar to a therapist’s office, Toback “had him on a couch, creating an environment in which he could reveal himself. [But] I’m not going to, then, go call all the friends he’s referring to and the people he’s worked with and ask them about their opinion of him…That was always the idea of the film, not to check references.” Even if Toback’s filmmaking methods may beckon speculative retorts, it provided a lucid scene for Tyson to reflect upon his most trialed times.

    Case and point: his resounding conviction of innocence against charges of raping one Miss Black America contestant. Normally, most bruised fighters would skirt around such difficult past episodes, potentially baiting an emotional outburst. With Tyson, though, it tendered an opportunity to set the record straight. And Toback completely trusts the boxer’s recollection of the well-publicized scandal. He confesses, “[Tyson] has been so adamant, for fifteen years, telling me that she is a liar, that there was not any way that anyone, including her, could possibly interpret what had happened as rape. And that he was completely railroaded [by the prosecution]. I would be as surprised as I’ve ever been by anybody I’ve ever known, lying to me, if he would—totally, unnecessarily—have volunteered 100 times, over the years, that she was lying. There would be no point…He’s just eaten away with rage that he served these three-and-a half years for something he didn’t do.”

    Another touted news story—the biting incident involving Evander Holyfield—still, to this day, affects Tyson, as he recalls in the film. The director explains that most fighters are civil, even cordial, with each outside the ring. But things were different with Holyfield after that wounding, globally televised match. “They were casually friendly with each other, as most fighters are…Mike talks about that: [they] were all part of the same game, but when it gets down to fighting for money or to stay alive or to stay champion, you become homicidal. And then you go back to being friendly with the guy…Holyfield, as [Mike] makes clear, was intentionally butting him to try to open cut on his eye, and so that puts [Holyfield] in a different, [less affable] category.” These cutting memories may still linger on in Tyson’s mind, but he is surprisingly articulate about his troubled, tumultuous past.

    Leapfrogging from one festival to the next (including Sundance and Cannes bows, both receiving standing ovations), Mike Tyson has had numerous opportunities to see his story on the big screen. Toback reports that Tyson finally may understand the kind of fear he instills in people, and has grown since: “At the third time at Sundance, [Mike] actually said [to me], at the dinner afterward, ‘People always said they were afraid of me, and I never understood why. Watching the movie tonight, I realize I’m afraid of this guy.’”

    —Adam Keleman

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