Few can imagine what it was like to be Tupac Shakur or Mike Tyson in the early 1990s. So, it’s really not surprising that the two became friends. Given the larger than life status both achieved at such an early age, who else but them could relate to each other? The parallels in their lives are numerous but the ones that stick out the most are: both men grew up fatherless in tough urban terrains and found a way out through their respective talents—-rapping and boxing—-but never really escaped the perils of their upbringings.
Logically this should form the foundation of ESPN’s One Night in Vegas which debuts tonight. It does and doesn’t. Ostensibly that’s the goal but, unfortunately, One Night in Vegas, which is centered around the Tyson fight of September 7, 1996 where we all lost despite a Tyson victory because Tupac was shot (he died six days later), gets muddled down in too many creative devices that distract from the core of the story.
For example, two spoken word artists kick off the documentary from a ring, with one wearing Tupac’s signature bandanna. Then there are the comic book-styled images when the story requires more of a white background to allow it to shine. Tyson’s and Tupac’s friendship is both rare and representative. On the one hand, they were living this life so few of us could imagine with the fame, money and women and, on the other, both men, like so many other black men their age and from their backgrounds, ended up in jail, with Tupac becoming another homicide statistic.
Still, many of the film’s interviews are interesting. Maya Angelou discusses diffusing a heated argument with Tupac and another man on the set of Poetic Justice that could have ended in gun violence. She describes taking Tupac away from the situation and essentially telling him that black people had not endured slavery and other ills for him and another black man to be at odds like that. Her recollection of visiting Mike Tyson in jail at his request while he served time after his controversial conviction of sexually assaulting Desiree Washington, a Miss Black America pageant contestant, is also surprising.
No one can blame her for not anticipating Tyson’s desire to discuss the afrocentricity of Richard Wright and James Baldwin against the eurocentricity of Tolstoy. Few of us would. After all, avid readers don’t usually earn the “iron” tag.
WATCH THE TRAILER FOR ’ ONE NIGHT IN VEGAS’ HERE:
Then there are interviews with Tupac’s brother Mopreme Shakur and his aunt Gloria Cox, as well as Mickey Rourke, who knew both men, and even Suge Knight. Michael Eric Dyson and hip-hop writer/feminist Joan Morgan have been enlisted to provide cultural context plus Mike Tyson is a presence throughout. Again, there is so much richness here and director Reggie Bythewood, who rose to prominence as the screenwriter for Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus, has a solid reputation. So why is such a naturally powerful story ultimately underwhelming?
Perhaps it is because there are so many themes and so many possibilities that it was hard to choose. Some interviews come in at the wrong time. For example, Joan Morgan discussing the behavior of aggressive groupies should have come in explanation following the details of Tupac’s sexual assault, not before.
A documentary is hard to pull off because, unlike a film, it’s dependent on people wanting and willing to tell the truth on camera. For many that’s a scary proposition and, to be fair, One Night in Vegas has so many great interviews. It’s just that the sequencing is off. Yes, it’s easy to look and criticize and harder to actually execute. One Night in Vegas is worth watching; it’s just not gratifying. It lacks the punch of other documentaries, even those with less explosive subject matter. That’s especially sad to report because a great opportunity has been lost. That night set in the motion not the death of just one man. Given that Tyson’s career severely fell off after that fight, which One Night in Vegas does point out, there’s a lot more to the story.
Yes, there’s obvious tragedy, physical in Tupac’s death, but symbolic too. Even given Tupac’s penchant for finding trouble, what did his death represent to not just Tyson and others in the documentary, but what about other young, black men like them? Did it say to them: why bother? Even with fame and money, the Native Son conditions that birthed you cannot be erased. When the odds are so heavily stacked against you, can you ever escape?
It’s clearly more than One Night in Vegas and the documentary knows that. The only problem is it never truly succeeds at fully translating that. Both Tupac and Tyson are modern day tragedies. It’s deeper than a “dream deferred”; it is a dream realized and then lost. Tupac died a physical death while Tyson has died a living one. Both happen every day but, unfortunately, One Night in Vegas only dances around it.