Mike Tyson is a figure with unusual voltage, a celebrity who fought for his spot in the firmament with a weaponized charisma. The champion boxer is relentless even by the standards of the sport, with the famous incident in which he bit the ear of Evander Holyfield casting a shadow over his achievements. Outside the ring, he’s simultaneously known for a surprising soft-spokenness that makes the listener want to lean in and for a tendency toward violence — including a 1992 conviction for the rape of Desiree Washington — that repels.
A serious reckoning with Tyson’s place in our culture, in the currently on-trend format of dramatized retelling via limited series, would deal with both sides of the Tyson image, and the complicated ways they feed each other — the fact that the allure of Tyson is bolstered by our sense of him as threatening. This is not the path that Hulu’s new series “Mike” takes. Starring Trevante Rhodes as the fighter, the series doesn’t let Tyson off the hook. But in treating Tyson as two selves divorced from one another — good egg and man capable of bad things — “Mike” forgoes opportunities to examine the unitary person and symbol Tyson is.
The framing device here is a live stage show, of the sort Tyson actually did in the early 2010s. Rhodes-as-Tyson tells us his story there and within flashback vignettes, breaking character to address us. Rhodes, of “Moonlight” fame, is terrific in the role, nailing both Tyson’s sibilant voice and the air of petulant self-regard that can at times be detected under it. But the show exhibits a certain incuriosity about how various elements will play on camera. It brushes past ex-wife Robin Givens’ claim that she suffered a miscarriage, with Tyson telling us in voiceover “She wrote her book and I wrote mine.” Later, Tyson refers to “the Russia incident, which was totally overblown,” as we see Tyson assaulting Givens (Laura Harrier) in slow-motion as the song “Lovely Day” plays. The scene ends with Tyson throwing a television set.
In some ways, the intent seems clear — and not dissimilar from that of the noxious 2017 film “I, Tonya,” which was written by Steven Rogers, creator of “Mike”: that film’s star Margot Robbie and director Craig Gillespie are among the executive producers of the series. There as here, words are placed in obvious counterpoint to images that plainly disprove them (and underscored with an irritatingly sarcastic music choice), all to serve the point that our narrator is self-evidently dishonest.
And yet while that movie plainly holds its subject, the ungainly figure skater Tonya Harding, in contempt, there’s a certain respect here for Tyson. Part of it is simply the amount of time he’s given to plead his case; we see how a rough upbringing made Tyson aggressively self-protective, and how nurturing trainer Cus D’Amato (Harvey Keitel) encouraged him to, in Cus’ words, “not only win[…] but win in an exciting manner.” And part of it is Tyson’s own élan. Trained in showmanship by D’Amato and by boxing promoter Don King (a swaggering Russell Hornsby), Tyson knows how to use the spotlight. Unlike Harding, who has struggled to make herself clear, he is not one to find himself at a loss for words; the power of his self-belief is real. And for all that anger can be placed under his words in ironic counterpoint, the fact of the matter is that a character speaking directly to the audience carries a certain weight — if not in making us believe Tyson, then at least in giving him an increasingly sympathetic hearing.
Which is, itself, an interesting thing to investigate — it’s just that “Mike” doesn’t explore the terrain particularly interestingly or well, tending to settle for a fascination that one person can be contradictory as a conclusion rather than the starting point that it is. And its tendency to defer to its subject in the end makes Desiree Washington’s place in the story uncertain. Li Eubanks plays the Miss Black America pageant competitor whose charge against Tyson of rape was affirmed by a jury; the performance, and the episode within which it exists, is elegantly done. Indeed, Eubanks impressed me with her conjuring both of Washington’s self-possession and of the severe and destabilizing insult to her sense of self; it’s she who speaks to the audience near the episode’s conclusion, telling us “I did it. I survived it, just like Mom said I would.” It’s not Tyson speaking, for once — for what is it he could say? His silence feels less like cutting him a break and more like acknowledging his words can only fail this time.
It’s a strong moment on a show I might not have thought had that level of sensitivity to survivors in its earliest going. In its treatment of the earlier, high-profile case of Givens, who has alleged abuse by Tyson, “Mike” hadn’t distinguished itself as the sort of series capable of treating these issues. As the Washington episode, entitled “Desiree,” was the final episode made available to critics, time will have to tell. Maybe it was a turning point; I hope that it wasn’t an isolated incident in a series that, in too much of its earliest going, hands Tyson the mic.
“Mike” will premiere on Thursday, August 25 on Hulu, with two new episodes per week following weekly.
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