Some figures are larger than life. Mike Tyson certainly became the definition of a cultural anti-hero. The boxer grew up in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world, went to prison, and became the champion of the world. On the surface, that story inspires hope. How Tyson handled the fame became another issue entirely. A new Hulu series, Mike, hopes to dramatize the controversial figure’s life. Anchored by a stunning performance from Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight), the series struggles to break out of the traditional biopic formula.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Tyson struggles to build a life for himself. However, after entering the prison system, he gets his first big break with a trainer (Harvey Keitel). Over the next few years, he fights to the top of the boxing world. However, with success comes problems, including Tyson’s troubling marriage to Robin Givens (Laura Harrier), his rape of Desirée Washington (Li Eubanks), and his relationship with Don King (Russell Hornsby). Throughout the series, Tyson elaborates on his own story through the context of a one-man show (modeled Tyson’s one-man show on Broadway in 2012).
However, the show undeniably steps up in quality when Rhodes enters the ring. Providing us first-person views of the fight is nothing new, yet the way the camera moves through the ring brings energy to the screen. Additionally, the editing team must have worked overtime with the cinematographers because the symmetry between several shots in fights does showcase a visual consistency rarely seen on television.
However, not all was fun and games with Tyson. Where Mike gets more intricate is during the Desirée Washington assault. While most shows would attempt to frame his life and career leading up to this moment. While violence was inflicted against Tyson, the series highlights that Tyson was always able to send it right back. In many cases, the violence is repaid tenfold. For Mike to instead side with Washington informs the audience of where the creators stand. While Tyson may have been negatively portrayed for years before and after the event, this moment is not one that resulted from his strict upbringing. This was a moment of violence against a woman that did not deserve it.
Rhodes, B.J. Minor, and Zaiden James join forces to bring a fully-formed Tyson to life. Minor surprises as the bridge between an innocent child and the Tyson we grew to know. He brings a much-needed ambition and pathos to his role, which allows Rhodes to step into center stage. Rhodes’ performance gets a boost from the series’ framing device. He imbues the man’s charisma throughout the show, always allowing us to return to the prankster version of the fighter. Yet during the Washington incident, it was impossible to not be scared of his actions. Rhodes brings each side of Tyson to the screen when needed, and few performers can so masterfully handle that range.
Director and producer Craig Gillespie continues his run of bringing controversial figures to the public. After considerable success with I, Tonya in 2017, Gillespie brought Pam & Tommy to Hulu in 2021. Gillespie’s trio of projects harkens back to Ryan Murphy’s run on FX. Considering the Hulu/FX partnership, this is not a mistake. However, to continue producing hits in this vein, Gillespie will have to push himself as a director (he directs four episodes of Mike) and producer to dig deeper into the heroes they highlight.
Depending on how well you know the Tyson story, Mike might be old hat for you. Yet watching Rhodes deliver another excellent performance reminds us that he is a generational talent. If nothing else, the actor has earned a right to take on some of the best parts in Hollywood. Unfortunately, the series struggles beyond this basic plotting, leading to a mostly conventional biopic series with a few visual flourishes.