At first it’s hard to see why Mike Tyson didn’t like the series that’s been made about his life. After all, it’s as if the whole series is aimed at making viewers like him. It kicks off with the famous bite and then backtracks to trace out a portrait of Mike Tyson starting with a difficult childhood marked by a lack of affection. Neither his absent father; nor his mother, who never gave a dime for him; the boys in his neighborhood, who bullied him (which led him to stop going to school); and even his sister, who was the one who came to care the most about him – nobody knew how to give Mike Tyson the kind of affection needed by a sensitive boy who grew up in the school of hard knocks in a difficult suburb where the default path led to delinquency. He did indeed end up at a juvenile detention center when just a teenager. It seems his life was destined to involve some kind of sentence. But the need for affection, the series suggests, was also what saved him.
While behind bars, he met an ex-boxer who taught him how to box and who also took him under his wing. Having someone show some concern about him was what had the biggest impact on the boy, who until then had largely been left to his own devices in life. His first professional trainer (played by Harvey Keitel), treated him like a son, even taking him into his own home, and Tyson responded by becoming the beast he was expected to be – the beast called Mike Tyson. In this sense, the series surprises with its portrait of the boxer, namely one known for biting the ear off an opponent. He is depicted as someone who, more than he needed to throw punches, needed a hug and someone to listen to and believe in him. Actor Trevante Rhodes manages to draw out this spirit that is fierce but, above all, sensitive. In reality, throughout Tyson’s career, various people did exactly the same for him. Some acting out of self-interest, others with more sincerity, but the damage had already been done – something in Mike Tyson’s psyche had already concluded he was unworthy. Thus the continual effort to find the affection so craved in the ring. He fights in order to earn the public’s love and the approval of those who believe in him as an athlete.
The miniseries develops the story with great efficiency, limiting the boxing to very specific scenes, because what it is more interested in exploring is who the person behind the success is, and it uses various techniques (such as breaking the fourth wall) to build viewer intimacy. That is until it throws an unexpected punch at the audience, sending them reeling in the opposite direction. There is an episode in which Tyson ceases to be the central focus and the microphone instead passes to Desirée Washington, who he raped when she was just 18. It is the pivotal episode because it shows how the wounds haunting him lie hand in hand with the fact that he is a disgusting individual. It is possible to both suffer pain and to inflict it on others. What is not so easy to reconcile is that the character makes you want to like and reject him at the same time, which is what underpins the story of Desiree Washington. This episode straddles telling the story from her point of view while also not being so confronting as to make viewers reject him outright. Thus it avoids showing the rape explicity, showing just her face and not his. Had it been the other way around, the audience, placed in the victim’s shoes, surely could not have standed to watch even one more second of the celebrity.
Some will say it should nevertheless have been shot that way, and perhaps they are right. There will also be those who consider it unethical to focus an episode on a survivor who, since winning the case, has sought to put that juncture of her life behind her. And they’d also be right. The series seeks to find a middle ground between the desire to tell her story – and it does so in the most empathetic way possible – while minimally preserving Tyson as the focus. Whether the result is fair is something that could be debated for hours. What is certain is that this episode is enough to cast a shadow over his character for the rest of the miniseries. Addressing the viewer, he even asks: “Don’t love me no more?” Taking aim at the subject, even with these nuances, is uncommon in a biopic. It’s also a brave move on behalf of series creator Steven Rogers, who, like a good boxer, puts the audience on the ropes, without any escape, and illustrates the dangers of turning into an icon for something (in this case the African-American community) someone who should not be an icon of anything, and how such iconic status offers a cloak of protection that can make a public figure untouchable. No doubt the emphasis on this violent episode of his life is what caused Mike Tyson to come out against the miniseries, which was made without his authorization (another ethical issue to debate). It is also the main reason that we recommend it to you.