For many of us who saw HBO's presentation of the Mike Tyson-Alex Stewart heavyweight bout last Saturday night, the fight ended up being a sidebar to a short, provocative "documentary" by Spike Lee.
HBO Sports Executive Producer Ross Greenburg asked Lee to direct a segment on Tyson and his friend-promoter Don King to be aired just before Tyson exchanged blows with Stewart. Lee, whose screen credits include "She's Gotta Have It," "School Daze," "Do the Right Thing," "Mo' Better Blues" and his upcoming "Jungle Fever," had only one request: Either run it unedited or do not run it at all. Greenburg said, "Okay."
It was filmed intentionally either in overexposed black-and-white film and then underexposed in the development process, or with very high-speed black-and-white film, which gave it an ethereal effect.
Sometimes, Tyson spoke with a towel over his head, half-hidden in shadow, full frame; King was shot head-on as well as in elliptical way, nearly off-camera. My attention initially was diverted from what they were saying by Lee's arresting visuals. The film was brilliantly done and sure to be an Academy Award possibility in the "short film" category.
Lee's intentions, however, admittedly were suspect. When HBO anchor Jim Lampley asked him before it played whether his efforts constituted "advocacy" or "journalism," Lee replied: "Both. . . . We just rolled the camera." But it certainly matters whether the intent was to advance a point of view or to have the viewer believe that for those eight minutes King and Tyson were just actors.
The subject matter was American racism and that is too serious, too important and too inflammatory to be dealt with lightly and/or out of context. I'm assuming it was advocacy or an attempt at historical revisionism on celluloid.
Tyson spoke calmly but with firmness from his heart of his cynicism, the tyranny of his ghetto upbringing in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, how many in his profession "were whores to the system," how reporters' "minds have been suppressed," how he and other black fighters were "taught to hate Don King," how white sports reporters "if they had the nerve, they would be just like me," and how too many black people who have succeeded in life have turned their backs on people who grew up in circumstances similar to his.
While much of what he said is true, it was not balanced, even toward black America. But he has had a sheltered existence in terms of life's benefits, which his millions alone can never redress, so his comments are heard through the urban street life din of muggings, shootings, drug trafficking and a feeling of nonacceptance from society.
King alternated between Jesse Jacksonesque prose ("If you don't stand for somethin', you don't live for nuthin'.") and diatribes ("If you're a nigger, you're a nigger 'til you die.") that are now his signature statements. Many observers in the past just interpreted these statements -- like his hairdo -- as part of the normal hyperbole of fight promotion.
He recently took out full-page ads in several major newspapers extolling the virtues of the American way. But in front of Lee's cameras he vehemently and stridently complained of the criticism blacks get for trying to help one another: "Jews love Jews, Italians love Italians . . . but when a nigger loves a nigger, it's an unpardonable sin."
This last sentiment is unquestionably shared by many blacks. One has only to listen to any black-format radio talk show in any city to hear it. But he left the impression that his improprieties too must be understood in the context of boxing's whorish hoards. Was he asking us to condone his shortcomings or that he was just beating whitey at his own game? Should I excuse King for -- pardon me, Spike -- doin' the wrong thing?
I was most troubled, though, by Lee's answer to Lampley's final question as to why King was so angry and why King said there were no black heroes today. I don't know any blacks that are not angry for a good part of their lives or have never been victims of racism.
But midway through Lee's response, he admitted that King "may have exaggerated a bit." Huh? The subject was racism and now he tells me this was a movie after all. (Movies exaggerate, journalistic documentaries are not supposed to.) Well, what was exaggerated and what was not? As one brought up in segregationist Virginia in the 1940s and 1950s, I was always told that racism was a very sober topic.
My lineup of heroes would certainly include blacks like Marian Wright Edelman, Randall Robinson, Jesse Jackson, Mother Hale and Muhammad Ali -- and these are not exaggerations. As talented as he is as an artist, Spike Lee must not succumb to simplifying, compartmentalizing and unofficially amplifying what is already a social mine field. If he is bent on exploring the troubles of black America -- a subject I welcome -- he should give equal time to solutions. I know what's wrong. Show me what to do.