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After going their separate ways, the two men stayed in contact, though they wouldn’t talk again at length until more than a decade later, in a chance encounter at the City Grill restaurant in New York. The year was 1998 and Tyson, then still on probation for his rape conviction, told the director that it was while doing time, particularly in solitary confinement, that he too had come to know madness firsthand.
“Once you’ve experienced madness, it separates you in some fundamental way from everybody else who hasn’t,” says Toback. “By definition, it is almost another form of humanity, or of inhumanity. The only analogy I can make is the way some of the astronauts who have gone to the moon talk about the seismic change that took place in their perspective as a result of looking at the Earth from the moon — and I think it might be even more extreme than that.”
Toback offered Tyson a role in his next film, Black and White (1999), a multicharacter New York drama about white infatuation with black hip-hop culture. Tyson would play himself, improvising most of his dialogue and actions, including a memorable scene in which Downey, cast as the effete husband of a documentary filmmaker (Brooke Shields), comes on to Tyson at a party and ends up in a violent chokehold. It was a later scene, however, in which a hip-hop producer (played by Wu-Tang Clan’s Power) asks Tyson for advice on his planned retaliation against a duplicitous friend that made Toback realize the boxer deserved an entire film to himself. Tyson’s double-sided in-the-moment reply, first advising the younger man to murder his adversary, then immediately denying those words and cautioning against the potential legal repercussions, sealed the deal.
“I knew Mike was incapable of any guile, and that the revelatory aspects of his personality would be uninhibitedly truthful, because Mike is not capable of sticking to a script, no matter what it is,” says Toback. “He has the complexities and incompatibilities of thought and feeling that really fascinating fictional characters have. You can tell him exactly what to say, he’ll nod, and then 22 seconds later you’ll hear something that doesn’t resemble it, because it’s what he’s hearing in his head at that moment.”
At this particular moment, Tyson holds forth with a fittingly enigmatic rejoinder. “I would love to be able to lie, man, but the truth is more simple,” he says. “I’ve lied a great deal of my life. I used to always believe in telling the truth. I’ve lied on quite a few occasions, but I realize the truth will always set me free.”
Tyson went on to make a cameo appearance in Toback’s 2004 film, When Will I Be Loved, but it would be almost another decade before they embarked on their mano a mano collaboration — a delay the director chalks up to his commitments to other projects, as well as the pressing demands on Tyson’s own attention, including his 2006 arrest on DUI and narcotics-possession charges outside a Scottsdale, Arizona, nightclub. Ironically, it was both men’s desire to escape from self-destructive behavior that finally brought them together.
“After boxing, I became very bored and lethargic,” says Tyson. “I had nothing to do, and I found myself in a lot of trouble. I never planned on any other life. I always wanted to be a fighter and entertain people. When you can’t entertain people no more, it’s almost like you’re dead.”
Toback, meanwhile, was reeling from a literal death — that of his mother, Selma, which he describes as having had its own LSD-like effect. Overcome with a heightened sense of his own mortality, Toback felt “that if I didn’t make a movie quickly, I would probably get into a good deal of trouble.” He thought the time ideal to revisit the Tyson project, at which point, as if by divine intervention, Tyson’s Scottsdale arrest landed him in a Los Angeles rehab center. Says Toback: “There probably is no other place than a rehab facility which would have allowed him both mentally and physically to devote himself in this necessarily single-minded way to the movie.”
If Toback’s interest in the duality of man dates back to his 1978 debut film, Fingers, in which an aspiring New York concert pianist tickles the ivories and doles out punishment for his loan-shark father with the same two hands, Tyson’s most telling predecessor may be Jim, Toback’s published 1971 account of his months orbiting NFL superstar Jim Brown for an aborted Esquire profile. (Long out of print, the book has just been reissued by Rat Press, the newly launched imprint of film director Brett Ratner.) Subtitled The Author’s Self-Centered Memoir on the Great Jim Brown, it was born from Toback’s desire to understand (and transcend) his own feelings of racial outsiderdom as a white man who aspired to move freely in a black man’s world. But it was also an attempt to parse the complex iconography of Brown, another polarized (and polarizing) sports figure who appeared to eclipse race, so long as he remained on the gridiron and wasn’t plotting social change or thrusting himself upon white America’s virtuous wives and virginal daughters. Remarkably relevant almost 40 years later, Jim should be compulsory reading for all those who believe that the image of a hulking blue-black African-American has been stripped of its connotations of ancestral bloodlust and sexual menace simply because there is a handsome light-skinned mulatto in the White House.
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