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Mike Tyson And The Questions Not Asked

Director Spike Lee and Mike Tyson speak onstage at a panel in Beverly Hills on Thursday.
Frederick M. Brown
Getty Images
Director Spike Lee and Mike Tyson speak onstage at a panel in Beverly Hills on Thursday.

HBO's press tour presentations this year were quieter than they've sometimes been. They don't have a big, splashy new drama series to talk about — in part because they still make a limited amount of original programming and don't have a lot of room when they're happy with how things are going. They have a comedy series with Stephen Merchant, but since we haven't seen it, most of the questions touched in one way or another on how tall he is.

Their best panel featured Larry David and Greg Mottola talking about Clear History, a straight-up comedy film David wrote and Mottola directed, in which David is initially unrecognizable under makeup. But they also paneled Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight, directed by Stephen Frears, which sounds like it would be about Muhammad Ali but is actually about the Supreme Court. If I'd been titling it, I'd have called it something else because it's a little jarring to realize Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight is mostly about white guys. (And Thurgood Marshall, played by Danny Glover.) Lincoln has the same issue, but at least it's called Lincoln. Take note — Frears continues the trend of celebrated film directors working on made-for-cable movies, as Steven Soderbergh did with Behind the Candelabra.

They also presented Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth. It's HBO's film of Mike Tyson's one-man Broadway show, directed by Spike Lee.

The panel felt tense from the beginning because it started with a question about how loose the script was, given that it seemed unlikely that Tyson — not trained in theater — was presenting a Broadway-show-length monologue scripted to the last word. In a lot of ways, assuming things are loose and improvised is a compliment in this room, and if anything, we love hearing people say they make it all up as they go. But it clearly felt to Spike Lee like it wasn't a serious endeavor but just Mike Tyson Talking. "This is legit," he assured us. It already felt like we as a room and Spike Lee as a director were talking past each other a little bit.

Spike Lee and Mike Tyson have known each other a long time. Since at least 1986, Lee says. They "blew up at the same time," he remembers, and they were both from Brooklyn. And Spike Lee is happy to tell you how much he respects Tyson.

"Mike Tyson is the most honest human being I've ever met in my life. Because most — I'd said it this morning. But most human beings are not going to display the dark parts of themselves, the demons they have, to the world. I mean, that's just not human instinct. And when Mike — when you see this, and if the people saw the play, he's out there on this stage naked, sharing his experience, his ups and downs, to the audience. And it's traumatic. And to do that without thinking about how — whether people are going to love me or like me or hate me, that's not — he doesn't care about. He says, 'I'm going to tell you the truth. This is my life, and do it with it what you will.' And when he — and it's the most courageous thing I've ever seen in my life. Because I couldn't do it, and most people couldn't do it, where you just go up there, no b- - - - - - t, no lies, no spin, and talk about the great things you've done and about the not-so-great things you've done. And tell them both with honesty."

Now, when Spike Lee says "the not-so-great things you've done," there's a lot that's covered there. Including, presumably, biting Evander Holyfield on the ear. But the much bigger issue bouncing around in my head is Tyson's rape conviction in 1992, for which he served three years in prison.

I'm not an expert on the case against Tyson and, more importantly, I haven't seen the film, so I have no idea how or whether it's addressed. My own habit is not to ask questions about what's in films and not in them when the simplest answer will be "wait and see." When I see how or whether it's addressed, I'm sure I'll have an opinion about it. On this particular day, what I do notice is that Tyson almost compulsively makes jokes about being inclined to violence. "I'll bite you," he says, like it's funny. "Just like in fighting, I wanted to kill everybody in the room — with my performance, of course." It's really, really uncomfortable the way people laugh, the way they call him "champ," it makes me uncomfortable.

But I'm not sure I have a question about it, exactly, and if I do, I'm not sure it's for either of these guys. Maybe it's for the HBO execs, who by this time have left the stage. Maybe it's for the writers in the room. Maybe all the questions are for myself: this conviction is more than 20 years old and he served his time long ago. Should it dominate every conversation about him forever? I'm not saying it shouldn't. Maybe it should. I don't know. I'm uncomfortable. And because I'm uncomfortable, I'm thinking a lot. I don't know. So much will depend on what's in the film, right? I haven't seen it. Spike Lee has already put his stake in the ground about Tyson's honesty, his willingness to put his flaws forward; if we ask about the rehabilitation of Mike Tyson and the mistakes of Mike Tyson and the criminal convictions of Mike Tyson, this is what Spike Lee will say.

And I don't think these particular questions are for Tyson himself. I am a TV critic, and his experiences are massively, wildly different from mine, and I had to Google his conviction to remember when it was; am I going to grill him about it during HBO's press tour panels? Could/should I? How many ways can that go wrong? How many ways could I be wrong, and clueless, and blind?

Later, when I'm chewing over the business of the day, someone reaches out to tell me we have all failed rape survivors, all of us, by not taking HBO to task for airing the Tyson special. I consider trying to explain that press conferences are not really opportunities to take networks "to task" — that's something you'd do, if you do, when you write about the film. It's not a conversation where I tell HBO what I think of their judgment. I know why it's being raised; people want to hear someone say "shame on you" when that's what they're thinking, and I don't blame them.

But Wednesday, I was the one who asked ESPN about whether they're going to do more 30 For 30 documentaries about female athletes, and earlier Thursday, I was the one who asked the HBO execs about their incredibly male-skewing slate of dramas. I ask about these things, with issues of representation and responsibility and so forth. I care about all this, immensely. And when someone says to me, "Survivors see the license you extend perpetrators," it buckles my knees.

Because I know what she means. There is never enough. There is never enough holding to account, there is never enough complaining about the status quo and the voices not heard. There is never enough because there cannot be enough, because this jovial presentation of Mike Tyson is not the first insult but the final insult, and that buckles their knees, which have taken so much more than mine that the comparison is comical. And yes, at times, you have to look at culture and television through a pinhole in a piece of paper because looking at all of the people who it renders invisible at the same time is like staring at the sun.

There are times when I don't want to do this over and over, when I am so sick of having to spend my question to HBO on why all their dramas are about men, when I don't want to be sitting in that same spot, being called on, with everybody thinking, "Here she goes again with that." I like asking other things — I asked Larry David about designing the funny cars in his movie, and I asked Keith Olbermann what kind of sports obsessive he is, and whether Rob Lowe knows how to play JFK and not talk like Mayor Quimby. I like the luxury of asking about other things. I'd like to be able to just ask Mike Tyson about preparing for a show, and I'd like to be able to just ask Spike Lee about the ESPN documentary Winning Time, which he is in and which I adore beyond measure. I want all these things to go away so I can laugh at everybody's jokes.

Don't get me wrong — it's not a real complaint. I'm in a hotel. Nothing actually bad is happening to me. But when you feel like the questions you want asked are not asked in these moments — questions about race, about gender, about class, about politics and consumerism and violence and on and on, understand that there is more to not asking than not giving a damn.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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