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When it comes to “authorization,” Hulu’s Mike Tyson limited series Mike was damned if it did, damned if it didn’t, and probably shouldn’t have bothered at all.
Mike Tyson is pissed off that Mike, created by Steven Rogers and showrun by Karin Gist, was created without his “authorization,” loading up on accusations of racism against the Disney-owned streamer. The biggest problem with Mike, naturally enough, is that it’s far too generous to its unauthorized subject and, realistically, it’s hard to imagine anybody making a more sympathetic story about the former heavyweight champion and convicted rapist.
Cast: Trevante Rhodes and Russell Hornsby, with guest stars Harvey Keitel, Laura Harrier, Li Eubanks, Olunike Adeliyi, and B.J. Minor
Creator: Steven Rogers
Mike isn’t some total puff piece, but it’s way more invested in trying to understand Mike Tyson and the things he has either admitted to doing or been convicted of doing than in actually depicting those things and letting the audience draw their own conclusions. It’s not a big warm hug, but it’s definitely a compassionate pat on the shoulder and not a very perceptive one.
At the same time, the series is infuriatingly structured around the Mike Tyson: Undisputed one-man show that played Las Vegas, Broadway, 36 cities and aired on HBO in 2013. It’s one thing to use a framing device that inevitably will cause your boxing-adjacent drama that’s actually about toxic masculinity to be compared to Raging Bull. Can’t win there. But for an unauthorized version of a person’s story, this is a reminder to viewers that a previous authorized version exists — and an inadvertent acknowledgment that, “Yeah, we didn’t get any deeper here than something that was already widely available.”
Mike is a Wikipedia entry punctuated by superficial sociological retrospection. Instead of taking us inside Mike Tyson’s head — a place none of us might actually want to spend time — Mike takes us further and further from any unmediated truths about Mike Tyson. It’s a well-acted, flatly told limited series that adds little to the conversation.
Delivered in half-hour increments for reasons that might have made sense to Rogers and the show’s creative team — there is nothing in the pacing that suggests any conscious effort to emulate a boxing match or much of anything — Mike traces Tyson’s (Trevante Rhodes, after brief turns by Zaiden James, Ethan Barrett and B.J. Minor) growth from the streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn, to juvie; from his first meetings with legendary trainer and surrogate father Cus D’Amato (Harvey Keitel) to becoming the youngest heavyweight champ in history; from his unsteady partnership with Don King (Russell Hornsby) to his ill-fated marriage to Robin Givens (Laura Harrier) to the 1991 rape of Desiree Washington (Li Eubanks) and beyond. Though how far beyond is unclear, since the rape and subsequent trial come in the last of five episodes (out of eight total) sent to critics.
At any given point, Mike is using voiceover, scenes from Tyson’s one-man show, flashbacks, flash-forwards — the notorious ear-biting fight with Evander Holyfield actually opens the show — and direct addresses to the camera. Again, it’s an unauthorized limited series, but all the framing devices give the impression that the character of Mike Tyson is authorizing everything we’re seeing or hearing. It all comes from him. No version feels more or less “real” than the others. It’s busy for the sake of being busy. Chill out a little, Mike!
Chilling out has never been the name of the game for early Mike director Craig Gillespie, whose snarky and meta approach to celebrity played decently in I, Tonya and Pam & Tommy, but comes across as far too glib given the darker undertones of the Mike Tyson story. And if you didn’t think the approach played well in those projects, you really don’t want to see how it works in a story with much more poverty, violence, sexual violence and death. Gillespie’s distancing techniques maybe could work if they were intended as a reminder of the profound incongruity of Tyson’s transition from delinquent to notorious boxing legend to criminal and pariah to lovable comedy icon. That’s not what Mike is, and it turns out there are things and personalities that play poorly with tongue too often in cheek.
The series could be a condemnation of the Hollywood entertainment complex and the voyeuristic blood sport of boxing, but it isn’t. The most evident critique comes into play with how repetitive and entirely uninspired the boxing sequences are. The boxing matches are all variations on slo-mo gloves smashing into the faces of guest stars who look absolutely nothing like Tyson’s various rivals. Lack of directing inspiration Or commentary on the monotony of “Iron Mike” as a knockout king? There may be a little of the latter, but aesthetic boredom is aesthetic boredom.
It’s easiest to see Mike taking an actual perspective in the later episodes, in which Givens and Washington are both at least foregrounded in recounting their ill-fated run-ins with Tyson. Harrier makes Givens seem manipulative, one of many forces who come into the fighter’s life under the guise of compassion or even love, but end up trying to control him; she’s presented as an extension of how the media and Tyson’s chosen sport attempt to control Black male bodies. Eubanks’ Washington, on the other hand, is presented to accentuate her normalcy and sympathetic victimhood. We don’t see Tyson beat Givens or rape Washington. I completely respect the series’ desire not to fetishize Black female victimhood, but when your central character always has the ability to reframe anything we see and is prone to giving the audience “Ain’t I a stinker!” smirks or feeble justifications, it again becomes mitigation instead of condemnation.
In five episodes of Mike, we haven’t been introduced to a woman who wasn’t trying to bring Tyson down in some way — even his mother and sister, played by Olunike Adeliyi and Chédra Arielle in the series’ best and briefest turns — which doesn’t mean that there aren’t other women in the series. They’re just the sort of characters who are credited only as “Sex Worker” or “Hot Tub Girl.” There’s plenty of those.
Although Keitel conveys Cus’ general decency (with no hint of the accusations of exploitation that others level against him) and Hornsby evokes King’s inherent cartoonishness, they’re both essentially cameos. The only performance in the series that offers a chance at real depth comes from Rhodes. His version of Tyson’s notorious and oft-parodied lilting lisp is credible, and he delivers on a fierce physicality that doesn’t exactly replicate Tyson at his prime, but surely conveys the dangerous threat he represents. None of the makeup used to assist Rhodes’ transformation is very good, and in the case of older Mike Tyson, it’s actively awful.
Nobody is questioning the roughness of Mike Tyson’s upbringing — though the series’ artificially staged version of Brownsville is more theme-park-ride artificial than authentic — or how abuse and neglect made it hard for him to love and easy for him to be a victim. Of course, part of why nobody will question that is because Tyson has done the aforementioned one-man show, a documentary series about his love for pigeons, plus year after year of tell-all interviews and countless film and TV projects in which he played self-fictionalized versions of himself. Taking on Tyson, that Animal Planet unscripted show, was probably the closest I’ve ever come to feeling an understanding for him, but once the authorized story has been told this many times, why bother with an unauthorized story that’s nearly identical?
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