Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Documentary Fest: Mike Tyson: The Undisputed Truth (2013); OJ: Made in America (2016)

Some of the best moments are when Tyson is recounting his
moments as a boxer- the profession in which he achieved
historic greatness.
Mike Tyson: The Undisputed Truth (2013)

Director: Spike Lee

OK, so technically this isn't a "documentary," but I don't often review recordings of Broadway shows. This category seems to fit as well as any.

Not long ago, I did post on the documentary Tyson, which was released a couple of years before The Undisputed Truth. In that post, I describe how Tyson has always been a  rather fascinating figure to me, as an unstoppable boxing force of nature when I was a kid, right up through all of the troubling and bizarre trials and tribulations that would dog him for the decades following his loss of the heavyweight title. So I was surprised that it took me so long to get around to watching the one-man show that he put on several years ago on Broadway.

The Undisputed Truth can be a somewhat strange viewing experience that is likely to be enjoyable for fans and supporter of Tyson but probably won't win over any new supporters. In fact, there are some segments of the show that emphasize some of the less appealing aspects of Tyson's nature which he seems to still harbor.

The show is built around Tyson giving his autobiography while on stage, with visual images projected behind him onto a large screen. He start with his birth and covers many of the major turning points of his life, both in his historic boxing career and in his infamous and well-documented
When Tyson gets humorous, such as when he recounts his
first meeting with a very young Brad Pitt, the comedy some-
times gets unintentionally awkward.
personal struggles. For much of the show, Tyson doesn't lay blame for his failings anywhere but with himself. There are, however, some moments when he intentionally lapses back into the ultra-macho, street fighter mentality when recounting more barbaric encounters like his admittedlly humorous run-ins with Mitch "Blood" Green. Green was a former heavyweight fighter and notorious meat-head whom Tyson pummeled both inside the ring and outside of the ring, the latter tale is one which Tyson clearly relishes in telling. It's one of a few stories that are meant for pure comic effect, and it does work to an extent. There are times, though, when the humor didn't hit, at least not with me. When he tells of seeing his ex-wife Robin Givens riding around with a very young, up-and-coming actor named Brad Pitt and says that he didn't know whether "to fuck him or fight him," it smacks of the type of unsavory machismo that doesn't appeal to me. In moments like this, he was clearly playing to his crowd, which was composed of no small amount of NYC locals who are obviously in his corner.

Many other segments of the show are more serious in tone, as Tyson speaks of his rape conviction and the accidental, freak death of his young daughter. During these moments, there is a vulnerability to the man that is what has often made him a deeper and sometimes more tragic figure than many people have admitted. Anyone who has really listened to Mike Tyson, going back many years, could see that there was more to him than just a thug who was one of the greatest boxers of all time. Amid the mental chaos that he experienced (he has long since admitted suffering from clinical mental disorders) was an intelligent and often even thoughtful and empathetic person. These things can and do shine through at times, including in this one-man show.

While I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, those with the slightest curiosity about Tyson will likely find something of interest in the performance.

O.J.: Made in America (2016)

Director: Ezra Edelman

Incredibly brilliant, deeply disturbing, and immensely informative. These are what documentaries can be, when done with a broad persepctive, in skilled hands.

Like many, when I heard about this documentary, I presumed that it was another barely-necessary rehashing of one of the most infamous celebrity court cases in the history of the United States. I expected a simple rundown of the murder case, done in an almost Law & Order style summary palatable for the morbidly curious. What we all got, though, is an in-depth study of the making of a celebrity who put his immense charisma and skills as an athlete to his own purpose of transcending race and repressing his own background. It also ties all of this together with the larger and vastly more uncomfortable topic of race relations in the United States, in Los Angeles in particular.

At this point, any American over the age of twenty knows the basic O.J. Simpson story. He was a superstar athlete who achieved phenomenal glory on the football field in the 1960s and '70s. He also expanded into being a highly successful endorser of various big-name products, and even had a notable acting career. In 1994, though, he was arrested for the brutal murder of his separated wife and her then-boyfriend. O.J. would go through a bizarre apprehension and trial, which resulted in his acquittal, despite the fact that evidence strongly suggested his guilt. He went free, but his life would spiral in odd ways, until he was again arrested in 2007 for a gang-style show of strength aimed at reclaiming sporting memorabilia which he believed to have been stolen from him. He currently remains behind bars.

Those are the bare bones of the tale, and it's one that has been recapped hundreds, if not thousands, of times in the last decade. What director Ezra Edelman did with O.J.: Made In America was to look at the larger picture surrounding such a singularly tragic story. While weaker documentaries work hard to paint a very particular and often biased picture based on the director's subjective vision, the very best documentaries reveal truths which are much more difficult to argue against. Edelman crafted an excellent film that reveals much about American society and the nature of especially narcissistic and self-obsessed individuals. The focus begins on Simpson at the University of Southern California (USC), where he first attained national stardom as an award-winning running back for their powerhouse football team. Then we shift back briefly to Simpson's childhood in Oakland, where he grew up impoverished in an all-black neighborhood. From that moment, the film shifts back and forth, between O.J.'s rise to and through superstardom and the larger conflicts between the poor black community in Los Angeles and the L.A. Police Department. As one gains a larger understanding of that societal conflict, the seemingly illogical attitudes of certain groups during and after the murder trial become far more comprehensible.

Simpson and his attornies react to the verdict that polarized
the nation like few, if any, ever have. The full context around
the decision and reactions offers a fascinating and
disturbing look at the darker aspects of the American soul
and the human condition.
Beyond the most important facts that the film illuminates about race in the U.S. is the fascinating look into the nature of celebrity and narcissism. A theme throughout the entire series is that Simpson was, from an early age, virtually obsessed with appealing to the widest possible audience in order to attain and maintain fame. Seemingly born with dazzling charisma to go along with his physical gifts as an athlete, he was able to charm millions and millions of people not only through his sports and acting careers, but even through and after the horror that was the double murder of Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ron Goldman. Hearing the testimony of Simpson's former friends and associates is highly compelling, if ultimately greatly disturbing. We are allowed insight into the nature of a diabolical character - one who quite literally was so charming that he could get away with murder. And we are not allowed the comfort of forgetting just how horrendous the murder was, with the crime scene photos shown repeatedly. This decision by Edelmen feels completely appropriate, lest we viewers lose sight of the real loss among the peculiar and morbidly fascinating characters that Simpson morphed from and into.

O.J.: Made in America is no small viewing chore. Whereas most of the films in ESPN's excellent 30 for 30 series run between 60 and 90 minutes, this one was released as five separate episodes, clocking in at a grand total of seven-and-a-half hours. Honestly, though, I was hypnotized by it. There wasn't a single aspect or segment of the film that dragged or seemed superfluous. Anyone who enjoys well-done documentaries, even ones that cover unsavory topics, would do well to take this one in. It's a masterpiece.