TONY COX, host:
At the age of just 20, Iron Mike Tyson burst on to the boxing scene. He soon became one of the sport's most feared and revered boxers. But along with that fame came controversy. A new documentary called "Simply Tyson" aims to shed some fresh light on this troubled life.
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Mr. MIKE TYSON (Boxer): Who am I? The champion of the world. Voices fighting each other. Madness. I can't lose, I refuse to lose. The make-up of the mind. I met the president of Chechnya. I met the president of Istanbul. I'm going to relax, OK. I don't want my head to swell any more than it is. They gave me a parade in Moscow. They didn't even speak English over there.
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COX: NPR's Allison Samuels spoke with author, filmmaker and social commentator Nelson George, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Mike Tyson, and started by asking George about his thoughts on the documentary.
Mr. NELSON GEORGE (Filmmaker and Social Commentator; Author, "City Kid" A Writer's Memoir of Ghetto Life and Post-Soul Success"): I thought it was great. I thought it was a - I've seen a lot of documentaries on Mike, you know, Spike sends little things, Barbara Koppel did a piece on him. He's been written about and viewed, you know, by filmmakers all over the place, and it was nice to see a film where I felt like I got the raw, uncut Mike.
ALLISON SAMUELS: OK. Because that was the interesting part, it was very raw, I have to say. Very raw. And I guess, I don't know if it's sort of a difference in - because I've met him on numerous occasion and I felt like he's in many ways, a very nice guy. Do you think that came through? Did you get the human side of Mike in that documentary?
Mr. GEORGE: Oh absolutely.
Mr. GEORGE: I mean, he's complicated - he comes from a - I mean, we're both from the same neighborhood. And it's a very - that place, Brownsville, is not a place that encourages a lot of overt self-examination. Because, I mean, it's a place where you to have to keep on guard and wear a pose a lot of times to get through your day. And Mike came up when - he's about 15 years younger than me.
Mr. GEORGE: Maybe no, more like 10 years now. As I think about it, he's in his 40s. You know, it's - every evolution, incarnation of Brownsville makes - gets more and more isolated from the mainstream. And Mike's ability, his struggle, has been to, you know, as a man, is to how to take all the success he have and use that as a way to make himself better. He's an autodidact, he's self-taught. So sometimes, he's incredibly eloquent and had some amazing sentences, and sometimes, he's totally - he uses words wrong, uses them out of context. And that's one of the contradictions of being a self-toward individual. And I thought that came through very well.
SAMUELS: Now that did come through very well. I guess what my sort of issue was this, that I didn't get a really good feel for his childhood. I know his father died - or left the family when he was two. His mother died when he was 16. And he talks - at the beginning of the film, he talks about it. I think that was my father, I'm not sure if that was my father. And I wanted to know more about that because I think that also created the man that he became.
Mr. GEORGE: But I don't think that - I think that Mike didn't really know. I mean, I think you got the information that he had about the guy.
SAMUELS: What about his mother, though?
Mr. GEORGE: That was interesting. I've never seen Mike say much about her, ever. So again, I think in the context of his life, I think that was his major - one of his bigger problems, that he wasn't reared.
Mr. GEORGE: He wasn't raised in any conventional way. He was raised wild. Essentially because he's so philosophical and he's so analytical about who he's become.
SAMUELS: Well, it was very interesting because I've spoken to him. He's talked about his brother who's a doctor out here, and his sister, and those are things that we also not dealt with a lot in this documentary. And I didn't know if those questions weren't asked or maybe, he wasn't in the mood. But all those things were sort of, you know, I don't know, things that I felt like would've helped me as a person who's met him a couple of times, just have a better picture of him. But let me ask you this, as a black man, I feel like Mike Tyson means so much African-American men.
Mr. GEORGE: Of a certain generation.
SAMUELS: Yeah, of a certain generation. Talk about that a little bit. What does he mean?
Mr. GEORGE: Well, I mean, Mike for a bunch - the folks who came of age in the '80s was, you know, Ali. He was this figure. He was actually very much an embodiment of hip hop. He came into the ring, to Public Enemy a couple of times, other hip hop records. His whole attitude - he, you know, he would Dapper Dan closing. For those who don't know Dapper Dan, it was a clothier on 25th Street who may basically counterfeit - he took designs or he took stuff from, you know, major designers - the Gucci or Yves St. Laurent and had had sort of counterfeit jackets and counterfeit hats made up that everyone in hip hop would go through to get their stuff done. So he - he was - everywhere hip hop was, all the things hip hop embodied, Mike represent and Mike lived, good and bad. So he was a very powerful figure for so many of us. Watching a Mike Tyson fight, even though it was brief was a big event on a Saturday night.
SAMUELS: It's true. And that was one of the things that I think that the documentary captured really well it was just how powerful he was early on in his career. He was really amazing. What does Mike mean to African-American people now that he's gone through so much...
Mr. GEORGE: Well, I don't know if I speak for all African-American people...
Mr. GEORGE: But I would just say this. I think what Mike represents, you know, is a tragic figure. And he deals with that, I think, quite - he deals with that quite powerfully in the documentary. I mean, his downfall, how he fell, his feelings about what happened to him - what happened to him, you know, was quite - it was quite, you know, amazing. I thought he was pretty honest about who he was and how he fell and why he fell.
SAMUELS: Well, let me ask you this. Was there anything surprising to you? I was sort of surprised, I guess, for me, that he - he was somewhat positive in talking about Robin Givens. Did anything sort of surprise you…
Mr. GEORGE: He was - the only people he really had real anger towards was Desiree Washington and Don King.
SAMUELS: Yes, the reptilian swine.
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Mr. GEORGE: That was one of the best lines I've ever heard. His description of Don King was major.
SAMUELS: It was. I have to say, I had not heard that before as well, but it just - and it was the most animated he was, it seems, in the entire documentary.
Mr. GEORGE: Well, animated - angry. He wasn't angry.
Mr. GEORGE: I mean, and I think the thing about it is that he's still - this is a movie about a guy reflecting. And to me he reflected on what he thought was important to him in trying to move forward.
Mr. GEORGE: And everything from his description of having a venereal disease while fighting...
Mr. GEORGE: To his time in jail, to his embrace and you know, his flirtation with Islam, to his, you know, dealings with his children, I thought were all amazing. I think this film is going to be quite, quite popular because I felt like this was him trying to explain himself in the best way he could. It's supposed to be explained by the people.
COX: That was Nelson George. He is a filmmaker, social commentator and author of the new book, "City Kid" A Writer's Memoir of Ghetto Life and Post-Soul Success." He was speaking with NPR's Alison Samuels about Mike Tyson's new documentary, "Tyson."