As great as many of the documentaries in ESPN's 30 For 30 series have been, they often haven't succeeded in breaking out of the realm of sports fans and into the interest of general viewers. They're generally excellent as sports stories, but only the best of them have gone beyond that world and shown how events in the world of sports spill over into the larger world of American culture.
Tonight's installment, "One Night In Vegas" (directed by Reggie Rock Bythewood, writer of the Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious), would seem to be an ideal opportunity for just that sort of crossover story. It involves the events that occurred in Las Vegas 14 years ago today — Mike Tyson's WBA heavyweight championship bout against titleholder Bruce Seldon and Tupac Shakur's murder following the fight. As a sporting event, it was nothing special; Tyson's post-prison comeback starting in 1995 found him facing a lot of scrubs and cans, and while Seldon was a decent champion, he wasn't remotely one of the greats of his era. If anything, the fight gained fame not because of its splendid nature, but because Seldon folded so easily — even reeling from blows that completely failed to connect — that many fans assumed that the fix was in.
But as a cultural phenomenon, as one of those curious concatenations of circumstance where so many things from so many angles converge into something both unplanned and complex, it moved beyond notorious and into downright incredible. The friendship of Shakur and Tyson, two short-tempered young men who became incredibly famous on the strength of their street image and served time in jail when it became clear that the behavior that gained them fame was not acceptable in the glorified social milieu that fame won them; the way a sports story became a crime story, and the way they blended together in a musical genre noted for its brutality and criminal ties, and a sport infamous for its violence and mob influence; and the way the fight (assumed to be rigged) and the crime (the still-unsolved murder of one of the most famous men in the country) came together made the separate events into a unified and compelling story.
Bythewood starts the documentary out with a flashy virtuoso display, a spellbinding a capella pseudo-rap by Joshua Brandon Bennett and B. Yung accompanied by comic-book-style illustrations and captions. He keeps things lively through some historical context, largely avoiding the talking-heads issue by sticking with the slick Ang-Lee's-Hulk-style graphics, and limp moments like Michael Eric Dyson's pronouncements on the profundity of Tyson are compensated for by some great fight footage. (Which is also a good reminder of how absolutely punishing a fighter he was in his prime, an indisputable all-time great no matter how much he's pissed on his legacy since then.) A svelte Al Sharpton notes that it wasn't just the white bourgeoisie that hated the street-thug image of Tupac and Tyson; it was also the educated African-Americans of the civil rights generation, who felt that their heirs were squandering the hard-fought freedom they'd inherited and living up to the stereotype of the black man as a violent predator.
But while Bythewood makes sure to deliver the message that in rap as well as boxing, a violent, destructive image and an aggressive, over-the-top self-confidence is part of what it takes to win, he curiously elides some of the larger issues this brings up. Whether or not Tupac and Tyson were guilty of the rape charges that sent them to prison is barely even discussed (in Shakur's case, a female journalist who had earlier breathlessly recited one of his pro-female verses comes right out and says that she thinks the accusation was a straight-up frame-job, and no dissenting voice is heard). Footage of Tyson's comeback bouts make it look like he emerged from prison the same unstoppable force he was before, while not mentioning the much-discussed fact that he was facing sub-par opponents like Peter McNeeley. The spectacle of the actual bout with Seldon, one of the more pitiful fights Tyson ever had, is given a feather touch; it might have been necessary to secure Tyson and Seldon's cooperation, but "One Night In Vegas" doesn't even mention that hundreds of thousands of people watching the match came to the conclusion that the champion took a dive.
Of course, that all feeds into the fact that the night of September 7, 1996, was less about sports than the way sports reflects our priorities as a culture, and less about rap than the way rap has changed the way we perceive our pop idols. It's frustrating that Bythewood darts and bobs around some of the real issues — the legitimacy of the fight, the complicity of Tyson and Tupac in their own problems, and the possible reasons behind Tupac's murder — but the final product is one that illustrates that weird cultural complexity of the whole thing. Any story that involves not only Mike Tyson and Tupac Shakur, but thug-moguls like Don King and Suge Knight, celebrities like Mickey Rourke and Nas, and elder statespersons like Maya Angelou and Al Sharpton is both too good to be true and too crazy to be false. Bythewood doesn't tell a very neat story here, but he tells it with the energy and excitement it deserves, and if it ends with no clear conclusion, it's only suitable in a world that has decided not to care about who killed Tupac, and has not decided what it thinks about Mike Tyson.
- Nice cameo, in the comic-book montage, from the legendary DC Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali special.
- It's extremely disconcerting, to say the least, to hear Mike Tyson say that Tupac freaked him out a little because he'd never met anyone so fearless.
- The interview segments with Mickey Rourke are some of the oddest things I've ever seen in a sports documentary.