Spike Lee: Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth (2013) - Can't Stop the Movies
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30Aug/150

Spike Lee: Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth (2013)

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Spike Lee teams up with Mike Tyson to present a filmed version of Tyson's one-man show, Undisputed Truth.

There was a boyI can think of few subjects more worthy of Spike Lee's attention than Mike Tyson.  Tyson has always fascinated me, as his early life and brutal treatment still led to reading Maya Angelou and philosophy to talk about shifting economic conditions in America.  But this same upbringing and intelligence nonetheless produced a man who was convicted of the rape of Desiree Washington and bit off part of the ear of Evander Holyfield.  No matter the sensitivity or humor of the way Tyson presents himself in Undisputed Truth, to say nothing of the apparent reconciliation between him and Holyfield, I could not forget that the Tyson speaking onstage trying to crack jokes with the audience contains violent multitudes.

My observation Tyson "trying to crack jokes" is intentional, because I didn't laugh once during Undisputed Truth.  What I saw was a shifting portrait of a man uncomfortable in the spotlight, trained to behave and perform in a specific way be it in the ring or up there in the corner of Undisputed Truth.  The first shot of the show has Tyson in silhouette, sitting quietly as Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy" plays and when the lights come on we see Tyson trapped in the corner with a single bar stool and he tries to put on a chipper voice when he thanks everyone for coming out and welcomes them to his "living room."  It screams loneliness and desperation, not intimacy and humor.

The loneliness is what struck me the most about the next eighty minutes, as Tyson tells the audience stories of how he was abused, ignored, spat on, and taken advantage of.  I was almost horrified the first time I heard the audience laugh when Tyson was telling the story of the bully who killed one of his pet pigeons.  It's in that story we get a microcosm of Tyson, capable of nurturing but because of his environment and the evil he was subjected to he becomes a reflection of that evil and expressed it in violence.  This tension between Tyson's story is presented in the way Spike frames Tyson.  Unlike in Freak and A Huey P. Newton Story there's a noticeable distance between Tyson and the crowd, and even when we get a reverse-shot looking out into the crowd their faces are indistinct and reactions unclear aside from the sound of laughter.

Spike picks up on this tension, and the reaction shots from the crowd tend to pain a different story than the laughter on the soundtrack.  But before we get into that, how did you feel coming out of Undisputed Truth?With my mammaMy immediate reaction is that yes, that initial scene felt like a bizarre SNL parody in which Tyson takes over for Mr. Rogers, and he never quite recovers from that in terms of general presentation. We differ a little when it comes to the humor—I didn’t really laugh much, but I did think Tyson brought a nervous comic energy to certain sequences. The rhythm of the show ebs and flows, with these increasingly hard to follow, quickly spun stories reaching a manic high point, followed by a more emotional anecdote or shift in chronology.

One of my thoughts frequently was, “Tyson would be a great one-man performer if he had a little more control over his delivery.” This was usually followed by the question of responsibility in giving Tyson more of a voice, empowering someone who was convicted of rape to tell their side of the story and spend an hour prior painting themselves in a complex, somewhat nuanced light at least in part in order to contextualize the later crime. We talked about it a little with Kobe Doin’ Work, but it’s tough for me to make a case for actively seeking to give accused (and in this case convicted) rapists more exposure and cultural agency just because of the other details of their lives—it’s something victims almost never get in those cases. (*And significant to note that this was of course a show running on its own, independent of Spike—what I’m referring to is Spike’s decision to give it wider viewership by filming it.)

That said, you bring up an interesting theme that I don’t think gets fully realized in Undisputed Truth—the tension between Tyson’s inner violence (both suffered and inflicted on others) and his projected humor and reflectiveness. He’s sharply self-aware, and there are moments—like the story you mentioned about the bully killing his pet pigeon—where it almost seems like his own humor, feeding into the audience’s uncomfortably cued laughter, is directed at the absurd contradiction of his character. For being known as, among many other things, one of the most fearsome, brutal boxers of his time, I can see how such a sensitive and horrific story would be dealt with using dark humor—it’s as if both projected versions of his personality are meeting in a memory.Beat the manNewer Andrew cutout commentaryThat intersection between our memories of Tyson and the wisecracking version he's trying to portray in Undisputed Truth is what makes the interplay between him and the audience so interesting.  There's one fascinating series of cuts after Tyson is rendered small as Spike frames him against the gigantic red lips of Robin Givens.  Tyson was mute in an interview with her two decades earlier and finally gets the opportunity to respond to her and the "white guy she was probably giving head to."  While Tyson talks about this Spike cuts between shots of Tyson then a white woman who is looking very uncomfortable, then Tyson and to a black couple where the woman looks uncomfortable but is smiling almost at the insistence of her partner, then Tyson and to an older black man who looks for all the world to be silently judging Tyson.

This sequence gripped me, and variations of it play throughout Undisputed Truth.  Spike's editing takes it as a given that we're going to have differing perspectives on Tyson's version of the past, but Spike seems to be preemptively cutting off the very criticisms you bring up about giving voice to the rapist but not the victim by suggesting the crowd is thinking the same thing.  Sure, there's a lot of laughter, but Spike cuts in enough shots of people not laughing or having to be encouraged to even smile by their partners while watching Tyson's show.

Undisputed Truth exists at a sort of halfway mark between A Huey P. Newton Story and Kobe Doin' Work.  Spike illuminates the essence of Tyson better than he does Kobe, as the frequent judgmental side glances and nervous laughter combine with the flash photography of the beginning and emphasized distance between the audience and Tyson becomes a microcosm of his relationship to almost everyone in his life.  This is why I didn't laugh much, because I felt guilty even peeking into this view of Tyson's life in spite of the canned phrases and corny jokes.  Because at some point we have to deal with the reality of his life and the child who wonders why he, "can't even spell birthday."

It's wrong to say I enjoyed Undisputed Truth, but I was intrigued by this relationship and the high-wire distancing act between Tyson and the audience.  I wonder what the show would be like if they edged more into A Huey P. Newton Story's territory and truly made it a one-man show.  Would we see more of the rage and sadness which only sporadically bubbles up to the surface in Undisputed Truth?  I don't know, but the film Spike made provides a fascinating glimpse into the public's relationship with Tyson even if Tyson himself guard himself like any good fighter.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryOne thing I noticed as his show went on—and that runs parallel to some of the things we’re talking about—was the extent to which Tyson recalls (sometimes random) commercial products as touchstones through which to evoke a time and place in the audience. He’s always referencing products and slogans, sometimes as blink-and-you’ll-miss-it asides, and it works to subtly situate the Mike Tyson of boxing lore as a similarly branded construction.

What’s interesting, then, is how this situation of his public persona within a social and historical context marked by marketed products and all their corresponding associations belies the “natural” persona we’re supposed to be getting on stage. In a show like this, everything is constructed—as is every element of our experience of other people—and the aforementioned tension between gentle abused and violent abuser is echoed in the tension between the acknowledged public persona and the more “genuine” persona Tyson wants us to believe we’re now getting access to

All of that’s actually strikingly in line with some of ’s major themes, as you mentioned when we started—this struggle both between disparate elements of one’s personal identity and the frequent disconnect between identity and the meta factors used to represent and determine identity(/ies) socially and culturally. So until Chiraq, this is a better end point for our project than I initially thought.

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Next, final (for now) Spike Lee podcast roundup.Spike Film Selection

Posted by Andrew

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