Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Joined at the Fists: One Night in Vegas

Perhaps never before has such an eclectic group of talking heads been assembled as the one we find in One Night in Vegas, the latest entry in ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series, which features interviews with the likes of Mike Tyson, Mickey Rourke, Suge Knight and Maya Angelou. Put another way, this documentary brings together a former heavyweight champion who served time in prison for rape and once bit off the ear of an opponent, an actor turned boxer turned actor with a history of substance abuse, a record producer who is widely rumored to be linked to the murder of Notorious B.I.G. (and myriad other crimes) and, last but not least, a Pulitzer Prize nominated writer who recited a poem at the inauguration of President Clinton. Wrap your head around that for a second. These seemingly unconnected individuals are brought together here because of the events of September 7, 1996, the titular subject of the film, when two things occurred that, likewise, might not seem to be related at first glance: Mike Tyson defeated Bruce Seldon to win the WBA title and then, after getting into a brawl of is own, rapper Tupac Shakur was assassinated on his way to a post-fight party. One Night in Vegas suggests that the proximity of these events might not be entirely coincidental. Of course if you’ve watched previous “30 for 30” pictures The U and Straight Outta L.A. and witnessed the strong cultural bond between sports and rap, you suspected that already.

One Night in Vegas touches on themes similar to those two films, but it never comes off as repetitive or otherwise tired in large part because it exhibits a style as diverse as those talking heads. Directed by Reggie Rock Bythewood, the documentary opens with spoken word artists Joshua Brandon Bennett and Rahleek “B. Yung” Johnson standing in a boxing ring as they set the stage like a Greek chorus: “In mere seconds, drinks transformed into drive-bys, shots of Patron became shots in passenger’s side windows, and what should have been a lifelong bond was guillotined by gunfire. … On September 7, 1996, there was more bloodshed outside of the ring than inside of it.” From there, the film employs its other unusual flourish: illustrations by Steve (Flameboy) Beaumont that depict Tyson and Shakur as comic book heroes, one of them triumphing and the other being gunned down. It’s a seemingly random artistic choice, but it’s also a refreshing break from the documentary norm, and a needed one, considering that the rest of the film is mostly a parade of talking heads yapping away in front of bland interview backdrops. Some of these interviewees give eyewitness accounts of that fateful night in September, some give us a historian’s overview (thank you, Chris Connelly) and some outline the similarities of Tyson and Shakur – two men who were celebrated and yet feared and whose primal, menacing antics belied their intelligence. But the film’s most entertaining interviews are the ones that, journalistically speaking, probably don’t need to be there, like Angelou’s typically eloquent account of preventing Shakur from getting into fight on the set of Poetic Justice (and then lecturing him about African-American history to boot), and Rourke’s equally unsurprising barely-coherent account of an incident in which he and Tyson almost joined forces in beating the crap out of someone at a club.

Tyson, like Rourke, is usually the most captivating thing on screen, but in this film Shakur is the magnet for our attention. That’s not much of a surprise. Unable to speak for himself, Shakur is a tantalizingly elusive figure, and his mysterious death shadows the margins. Bythewood smartly tailors his film to his target ESPN-viewing audience, taking it for granted that most of us know more about Tyson’s life and career – from fame to infamy – than Shakur’s. Though Shakur had crossover success in the movies, to paraphrase Angelou, many Americans probably don’t know Tupac from a six-pack. Thus, One Night in Vegas provides a broad overview of Shakur’s life while using Tyson as a proxy. Blessedly, the comparison isn’t overdone. When Dr. Michael Eric Dyson says that Tyson was Tupac in boxing shorts and that Tupac was Tyson with a microphone, he’s being serious but also figurative. Similarly, Bythewood is careful to keep his dual narrative from coming off like some alarmist’s warning about the inherent dangers of rap or boxing. To leave this film thinking that either discipline directly inspires real-life violence is to miss the point. Where boxers and rappers are aligned is in their posturing and verbal sparring, all of it packaged with the often explicit suggestion that if you don’t take their threats seriously that they’ll back ‘em up physically. In Shakur’s era of rap, physical strength was demonstrated regularly. It says a lot about both men that what Tyson believes they shared most was an utter fearlessness – of other people or of the repercussions of their actions – that made others nervous. With good reason.

Was Shakur, who wrote the rap that boomed through the MGM Grand as Tyson entered the ring that night, swept up by the energy of fight night when he got into a brawl of his own? Did he idolize the wrong man? Did he forget that Tyson’s fisticuffs were officiated by a referee and that there were rules within the ropes? And, as Tyson himself wonders, might Shakur be alive today if he’d just stayed home and watched the fight on pay-per-view? These are interesting questions, and they’re substantial enough to warrant exploration of the ties between Shakur’s murder and sports. And yet, the sports footage in this film is a weakness, at least to anyone old enough to remember the way Tyson could dismantle lesser opponents with his crushing blows. For those of us who can recall Iron Mike at his best, this film’s boxing highlights are mired by our awareness that we’re watching a lesser champion, that after Tyson defeated Seldon is was all downhill and that Tyson’s dominance at the time was illusionary. In his post-prison career, Tyson never defeated a worthy opponent. We know that now.

One way to get around the lackluster fight footage might have been to take an all-in approach with Beaumont’s comic book illustrations. Then again, while I question the value of hearing that night’s referee describing the mood of the dressing rooms before the fight, or the film’s preponderance of talking-head interviews in general, there’s also no debating the allure of the shot in which Tyson and Shakur embrace only a few minutes after the match, sweat still glistening on Tyson’s forehead. And no illustration could match the eerie gravity of a photograph showing Shakur only seconds before his attack. Like Straight Outta L.A. before it, this film is notable not so much because of its filmmaking but because it was made at all, liberating American history from its habitual whiteness. If Frank Sinatra had been assassinated on the night of a Jack Dempsey fight, it would be engrained in the lore of sports and music. So it is that Tyson and Tupac should be forever joined in our minds.

One Night in Vegas premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release. See the archive.

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