It doesn’t take very long for “Mike” to really go off the rails. And despite the personal grievances of former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, on whom the show is based, that’s not due to the fact that creator and screenwriter Steven Rogers didn’t go through him for clearance.
There is a fundamental storytelling issue throughout the Hulu series, which premiered on the platform Thursday. As many viewers will likely note minutes into the first episode, there isn’t really anything new in the narrative that Rogers and showrunner Karin Gist tell here.
It’s well documented that Tyson, portrayed by Trevante Rhodes, had an unfortunate upbringing. He was the youngest of three children raised in New York City’s Brooklyn borough by single mother Lorna Mae Smith Tyson (Olunike Adeliyi), with whom he had a tumultuous relationship. Even a quick Wikipedia search could tell you that Tyson was raised by then-trainer Cus D’Amato (Harvey Keitel) after his mother died when he was 16.
Before that, the boy was relentlessly picked on by his classmates for his lisp and his weight, in and out of jail throughout his teens for various petty crimes. But a detail that “Mike” repeatedly circles back to is how detrimental his mother was to his life.
Through a sorrowful portrayal of Tyson’s younger years by both Zaiden James and B.J. Minor, we see Lorna Mae constantly devalue her son and tell him he will amount to nothing.
Mike is a victim from nearly the moment that the series begins in the first of numerous fourth-wall-breaking narrations by adult Mike, and this continues at least through the initial five episodes made available to press.
“There’s a lot of fucked up shit we’ll get to,” Mike tells us.
And it’s all what’s been done to him. When it’s not his mother giving him grief, it’s someone else. In later episodes, “Mike” alludes to promoter Don King (Russell Hornsby) mishandling the boxer’s money. The series has a lot of the potential to explore the way that white Hollywood has commodified young Black male athletes, yet this is strangely glossed over.
Instead, Gist and Rogers choose to hammer home how his mother and the other women in Mike’s life, who are very notably Black, helped damaged him — from ex-wife Robin Givens (Laura Harrier) to 18-year-old Desiree Washington (Li Eubanks), who accused him of a rape.
To be clear, “Mike” doesn’t overtly vilify any of these women. But they are each framed in a single-dimensional way that makes Mike look like the more complicated human who we at least understand, even if we don’t agree with his actions.
When he does something that undeniably hurts these women, the series is quick to show us how he too has been hurt — and sometimes by them.
Rogers isn’t beyond reproach just because he is a white man who might not understand how harmful this framing is. As the creator of a show with Black female characters, it’s his job to ascertain this.
But this approach is particularly baffling when you consider that Gist, renowned for Black female-centered shows like “Girlfriends,” told members of the press during a Television Critics Association panel this month that she felt strongly about women being a part of “Mike.”
And yet, this is what we got: a hackneyed portrayal of Black women.
Tyson has said that his mother was emotionally and physically abusive when he was growing up. In the series, she is also shown taking time off of work or out of her day to pick Mike up from the police station after his 37 arrests. She’s a single Black mother in New York with two other kids in the midst of the still-fraught era following the civil rights movement. None of this nuance is ever considered in “Mike.”
Granted, the series never ceases to remind us that its story is told squarely through Mike’s personal lens, which makes Tyson’s resentment for the show all the more awkward. But the fact that these women don’t receive equally nuanced portrayals results in an off-putting watch.
That brings us to the moment when “Mike” swan dives off a cliff. This is a series premiering in a #MeToo era that claims to reexamine the way women are represented on screen, but it is set in a period — at this point in the show, the late ’80s — that was anything but.
While “Mike” tries to reframe Tyson’s story for a more aware audience, it doesn’t extend that same grace to the Black women in the show. A few episodes into “Mike” — amounting to merely an hour or so of the series, since each episode is mercifully a half hour long — it decides to hang Givens out to dry.
This is after many have since re-watched a cringeworthy 1988 Barbara Walters interview where Givens alleged that Tyson abused her throughout their one-year marriage. This is after she was consistently maligned in the press for being a “gold digger” and speaking out against her then-heralded husband.
This is even after hearing that “Boomerang” director Reginald Hudlin in 2017 said Givens, an actor featured in the 1992 film, “was a very controversial character because of her history with Mike Tyson.” Hudlin added that there was much discussion around the decision to cast her amid “rumors back and forth about who she was as a person.” The narrative around her marked Givens’ career.
This is even after New York Times contributing critic Salamishah Tillet’s recent reexamination of Givens’ legacy in the current era, in which her undeniable value and contribution to screen portrayals of Black women are realigned with consideration to how unfairly she was discussed.
What happens once “Mike” really delves into the relationship between the boxer and the actress — without getting into any spoilers for the way the story is told in episodes airing next week — paints her right back into the corner she was in during the ’90s. And that’s infuriating.
This might be overlooked if the series weren’t so hellbent on portraying all its Black female characters this way. For that, it’s impossible to ignore, and it shouldn’t be. We can’t even spend much time with Desiree’s traumatic account of her experience without the show also telling us about the impact that it had on Tyson’s career and psyche.
“Mike” is a strange composition that appears chiefly designed to juggle multiple truths about a man who has, admittedly, had only one negative narrative follow him throughout the past few decades.
The issue is not about portraying Tyson through the binary lens of villain or hero; the series doesn’t shy away from his rape charge or his philandering. Rather, it’s about extending that compassion and desire for understanding nuance to the Black women who orbited his life. Without this, “Mike” comes off like contorted propaganda.