Back in the very beginning of this miniseries, Mike Tyson stood on that stage in Indiana and told the audience (and us) that he would be telling the truth about his life. His career as a boxer was long over. His celebrity had long since peaked. And now, he suggested, he could be honest and reflective about all he had done, good or bad, and perhaps offer some perspective on what he’d learned about himself. That’s the point of Mike, too: Let’s see the complete picture, from his hardscrabble upbringing in Brownsville to his triumphs in the ring to his disturbing relationships with women. Yet he’s an unreliable narrator, especially when it comes to behavior that’s difficult to forgive. He can talk about his days as a thief with that charming, self-deprecating “I was a bad wittle boy” shrug of his, but tales of physical and sexual abuse are another story. It would make a bummer out of his one-man show.
“Desiree” makes the conscious decision to break away from Tyson’s perspective for an episode and instead allow Desiree Washington, the Rhode Island beauty queen he was convicted of raping in 1991, to tell her story instead. It’s the safe and probably right choice because it implies, very simply, that Washington told the truth about what happened to her, and Tyson’s denials or excuses shouldn’t mediate that truth. And yet it does some damage to the narrative strategy that Mike had been pursuing in every other episode: The fallen boxer, in the “overweight Jake LaMotta” phase of his life, giving the audience the unvarnished truth for their entertainment dollar. It denies us the chance to question the limits of what he’s actually willing to disclose about himself. Again, ceding the floor to Washington makes sense, but it still disrupts the conceit of the show.
“Desiree” opens on July 20, 1991, as an 18-year-old Washington (Li Eubanks) prepares to represent Rhode Island in the Miss Black America pageant in Indianapolis. She tells the camera that this “is the worst day of my life,” but we don’t learn until later that her appearance in the pageant followed a rape the previous evening, along with a police report and a hospital examination. She was determined to follow through on the pageant, no matter the circumstances, because she didn’t want to take any more away from her life than he had already. The episode then flashes back to six days earlier, as Washington and her fellow contestants prepare for the ceremony. Her credentials are impeccable: She’s a member of the National Honor Society, a varsity cheerleader and softball player, and an usher at her church with aspirations to be the first Black female president. Her motives are unimpeachable: Being a beauty queen was her way of celebrating Black women because white girls always getting the crown “meant that girls like me were invisible.”
That last part sticks to the ribs a bit. It was Washington’s intent to be as visible as possible in school (where she was voted “most talkative”), at the pageant, and in the sky-high aspirations she had for herself. There’s a scenario in which she simply does not report the rape, carries that private pain with her, and gets rewarded with anonymity. The name Desiree Washington doesn’t become wholly engulfed by Mike Tyson’s. (Wikipedia tells a blunt story: Washington does not have her own page. Her name only appears under the “Rape trial and prison” section of Tyson’s enormous entry, which currently links to 273 sources.) But she was willing to sacrifice her future and her identity to seek justice for herself and for other women who might be subjected to Tyson’s predatory behavior.
Her account of the incident turned out to be unimpeachable in court, which was by no means a guaranteed result in rape cases against famous men. Mike jams in a couple of examples from the time where justice didn’t happen: Earlier that spring, William Kennedy Smith was acquitted of raping Patricia Bowman, partly because of a defense that focused on her sexual history. (Though the show doesn’t note that three other women were not permitted to testify about their own experiences with Smith.) Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas happened during his confirmation hearings in October 1991, and obviously those were not enough to derail his nomination. Washington got her day in a court and won in this climate, and Tyson would serve less than three years of a six-year sentence.
“Desiree” feels like another episode of Mike where the brevity of the series — eight half-hour episodes — doesn’t serve the scope of the story. (By contrast, Craig Gillespie’s last Hulu series, Pam & Tommy, had eight one-hour episodes and felt absurdly elongated at times.) All that context about William Kennedy Smith and Clarence Thomas gets rushed through in seconds, along with the entire circus surrounding the trial, with predictably unctuous statements by Don King and Louis Farrakhan and a “Free Mike Tyson” movement that naturally spoke through a bigger bullhorn than Washington’s supporters. At the same time, the episode doesn’t fully register the strain put on Washington or her parents, whose marriage did not survive the ordeal. It makes the most common biopic mistake: Rushing through the highlights without digging far enough into them to offer much insight or perspective.
For Mike to cede one full part of its eight-part Mike Tyson miniseries to Washington is a significant gesture, an acknowledgment from the show’s creators that this is an unambiguously evil chapter of a life that’s otherwise flush with compelling ambiguities. In doing right by Washington, the series loses track of its take on Tyson.
• Ending the episode with two long titles about Washington’s actions in deciding to press charges against Tyson and later refusing to sell her story for money is another strange choice, especially the first part, which reinforces what had already been dramatized.
• As Washington says in the narration, J. Morris Anderson, the founder of the Miss Black America Pageant, did indeed try to sue Tyson for being a “serial buttocks fondler,” claiming that the boxer had molested the 1990 winner and 10 of the 23 contestants of the 1991 pageant. He dropped the $607 million suit in late 1991.
• Good job to the jury for rejecting Tyson’s “natural carnal instincts” as a rape defense. The allowances celebrities get for misbehavior can be truly shocking sometimes.