In boxing the idiomatic expression to “Toe the line” stands for “getting someone’s act in order,” which is exactly what Hulu’s miniseries Mike does with the controversial life and career of heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. This series — based on extensive research of factual accounts, interviews, footage of real-life events — creates a deep and unbiased understanding of his complex and at time contradictory existence of one of the most polarising figures in sports culture.
Nicknamed “Iron Mike” and “Kid Dynamite,” Michael Tyson was raised in a dysfunctional family in Brooklyn. The encounter that changed his life was the one with Cus D’Amato, the Italian-American boxing manager who became his mentor, teacher, and legal guardian. He was the one who allowed the troubled child to get acquainted with the noble art and become a champion. But the wild and tragic life of Tyson did not transform into a fairytale. He confronted more loss with the decease of family members and friends; his first marriage to actress Robin Givens did not end well; he was manipulated by the business executives who were managing his assets, like Don King. Tyson however was no saint, the pubescent thief did not mutate into an exemplary adult. He got trialed for the rape of eighteen year old student Desiree Washington and spent three years behind bars at the Indiana Department of Corrections. His most brutish action occurred after being stripped of the WBC title in 1997, during the rematch with Evander Holyfield, when he bit his opponent’s ears removing a portion of it.
Today the professional boxer, at the age of 56, has risen from its ashes like a phoenix, with the media celebrating his questionable persona. After debuting a one-man show in Las Vegas Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth — which the Hulu series uses as narrative device — Tyson collaborated with film director Spike Lee and brought the show to Broadway, whilst the film version aired on HBO. The scrutiny that Tyson has had since the early days of his career becomes the fictional technique chosen by writer Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie to break the fourth wall and allow a televised storytelling of Mike Tyson’s life.
We are introduced to this serial biopic with Tyson standing on a stage retracing his life from his difficult childhood, traversing his most glorious times on the ring. Moonlight actor, Trevante Rhodes plays Tyson exceptionally, perfectly emulating his lisp as well as portraying the vulnerability in his first years of fame and the disenchanted arrogance that took over once he felt comfortable in his celebrity status. Harvey Keitel is a brilliant Cus, playing the introverted father figure, alongside the talented Twin Peaks star Grace Zabriskie who plays his wife Camille. Also Laura Harrier as Robin Givesn and Li Eubanks as Desiree are remarkable.
The way the facts are presented is very matter-of-fact and non-judgemental, whilst at the same time showing the entire emotional spectrum of the characters involved. Tyson is neither a hero or a villain, but rather a human who was broken by the life of abuse he confronted at a very young age. The aspirational figure he became — as a rich and free man of colour — was tainted by his brutal instincts. Mike wouldn’t harm a bird (pigeons were his favourites), and yet he often used his punches outside the ring with both men and women. Fighting back was all he had known in his formative years. Furthermore, his sports training nurtured the twisted idea of earning respect out of fear. He was adored by pop-culture as the icon of what it means to be savage, vulgarian, barbarian.
The tumultuous ups and downs of Mike Tyson’s boxing career and personal life encapsulated in the series present various parallelisms with current issues. The interview with Barbara Walters on the ABC TV show in 1988 given by Tyson and Givens resonates with the current sensationalistic media circus that speculates on the private affairs of public figures. Furthermore Hulu’s Mike is an effective parable of America, focusing its lens on the perception of race, fame, wealth divide and gender politics. The way Desiree Washington stood up to denounce Tyson’s rape, and in later years kept a low profile never speculating on the incident, echoes the contemporary movement of women who are victims of abuse. They want to set the record straight but avoid being labelled for life by the tragic circumstance.
Thus, Mike is very effective in utilising a biographical story to address a variety of socially relevant topics for our time, starting from the promise and frailty of the American Dream.
Final Grade: B