Mike Tyson has a unique and extremely complicated place in modern history as one of the most ferocious and feared and accomplished heavyweight boxers in the history of the sport—and a polarizing figure who is a convicted rapist and has a long history of violence. Yet he also is something a beloved pop culture figure whose persona has been exploited (or maybe it’s the other way around) in films such as 1999’s “Black & White” (in which he played himself and choked out Robert Downey Jr.’s character) and “The Hangover,” and the animated TV series “Mike Tyson Mysteries,” in which a cartoon Tyson and his team solved mysteries á la the gang from “Scooby-Doo.”
And we haven’t even talked about the tumultuous marriage to TV actress Robin Givens, the wild swings in financial fortune, the white Bengal tigers he kept as pets, the face tattoo …
Little wonder that even with all the books and documentaries already out there about Tyson, we’re getting two prestige-project miniseries about his life and times: a long-awaited project from producer Martin Scorsese, to be directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Jamie Foxx, and this week’s “Mike,” brought to you by the “I, Tonya” writer-director team of Steven Rogers and Craig Gillespie, with “Moonlight” actor Trevante Rhodes doing a remarkable job of re-creating Tyson’s tank-like physique and mimicking Tyson’s famously high-pitched sibilance. (Gillespie also directed a number of episodes of the similarly toned “Pam & Tommy” miniseries.)
An eight-episode series streaming two episodes each Thursday on Hulu.
Given the framing device of “Mike” is the one-man stage show “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth” and the series touches on virtually every known highlight and lowlight of Tyson’s life, one can understand why Tyson is furious with Hulu for telling his life story without remuneration (he has called it a “slave master takeover story”), but as we’ve seen with hundreds upon hundreds of biopics through the decades, if you’re a public figure your experiences are fair game for onscreen dramatizations.
As with “I, Tonya,” Gillespie and Rogers employ such techniques as shifting viewpoints, fourth wall-breaking and scenes in which verbal recollections are clearly undercut by visuals depicting events in an entirely different fashion. But whereas the filmmakers made no attempt to disguise their contempt for Harding and most of the other main players in that 2017 feature, “Mike” is neither hagiography nor character assassination.
We’re reminded in the flashback scenes of Tyson’s brutal childhood, with an absentee father and a struggling single mother, Lorna Mae (Olunike Adeliyi, turning in memorable work) who was a sex worker to make ends meet and never had an encouraging word for her son. By the time Tyson was 13, he had been arrested 37 times and seemed destined for either a life behind bars or an early death — until he was discovered by the wily old trainer Cus D’Amato (a well-cast Harvey Keitel, chewing up the scenery), who became Tyson’s trainer and father figure.
Early episodes of “Mike” play like a riff on two of Scorsese’s best films, “Goodfellas” and “Raging Bull,” from the Henry Hill-esque narration by Mike to the scenes of elegant and stylized violence in the ring. (At one point, Tyson stands in the ring and we get an overhead shot of his victims splayed out, like collapsed Busby Berkeley dancers; later, when Mike “trains” for the Buster Douglas fight by getting drunk and high and bedding numerous women, we see him in the ring holding a drink and wearing a silk bathrobe as the 42-1 underdog sends him sprawling to the canvas.)
“Mike” employs swooping dollies, dizzying jump-cuts, slo-mo entrances and whip pans to reflect the swirling insanity of Tyson’s life, from his meteoric rise to heavyweight champion to his marriage to Givens (Laura Harrier), who is not portrayed in a sympathetic light, to his dealings with the blustery and ever-opportunistic Don King (Russell Hornsby). We see re-creations of infamous moments, e.g., Tyson attacking Givens in Russia (with Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” serving as ironic counterpoint), the disastrous appearance by Tyson and Givens on “20/20” with Barbara Walters and, yes, the moment when Tyson lost it in the ring and literally bit off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear.
Any lingering doubts “Mike” will gloss over some of Tyson’s more monstrous actions are erased in the fifth episode, when the P.O.V. switches to that of Desiree Washington, the 18-year-old Miss Black Rhode Island who was raped by Tyson in an Indianapolis hotel room during the Miss Black America Pageant in 1991 and bravely testified against Tyson in court, even as his legions of supporters were criticizing her for being a gold-digger who was trying to bring down a Black icon.
Directed by Tiffany Johnson and written by Karin Gist and Samantha Corbin-Miller, this episode, titled “Desiree,” is almost like a stand-alone short film, with Li Eubanks bringing empathy, humanity and a heroic spirit to her work as Ms. Washington. For once, not even Mike Tyson can make the storyline primarily about him.