‘Mike’ And The Flawed Allure Of Authorized Biopics

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It’s been less than a month since former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson first posted his contempt for Hulu moving forward with “Mike,” the upcoming miniseries based upon his life, without consulting or paying him. Last week, he also doubled down in an Instagram Live conversation with Mario Lopez expressing his issues.

And so far, it looks like many are siding with him and throwing all anticipation they might have once had for the series out the window by not watching it at all when it premieres on Aug. 25. But despite Tyson’s claims that his life story was “stolen” from him, Hulu is not obligated to involve him at all.

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“You don’t need to actually get life story rights,” entertainment attorney Mitra Ahouraian told HuffPost. “It’s not a legal necessity. It’s something that’s good practice, and it’s something that’s very often done for a number of reasons.”

For one thing, Ahouraian says it’s to prevent claims of defamation or violation of their rights of publicity, assuming they’re telling a truthful story. It also makes it easier to get financing and errors and omissions insurance, which is required for distribution. All of this, especially the money aspect, is attractive to a reputable studio or production company.

Authorized stories also allow the storytellers access to the subject and the ability to consult with them. That access extends toward the actors portraying them — Trevante Rhodes, in the case of “Mike.”

Laura Harrier as Tyson’s ex-wife Robin Givens and Trevante Rhodes as Mike Tyson in “Mike.”

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Like “having access to some of their stories that are unknown or unspoken,” Ahouraian adds. “Having access to certain materials like photographs, or maybe letters they’ve written, or even people in their inner circle that you might not necessarily have access to.”

So, in that sense, there is certainly an appeal for a movie to be authorized. And for what it’s worth, it’s understandable that Tyson would be bitter about not being a part of his own story, and will not reap any of its profit.

“It is kind of a frustrating thing for celebrities in general that anyone could go out there and write about them,” Ahouraian agrees. “But the law says when you put yourself out there as a public figure, you have less rights than a private individual ― even [one] whose facts become public.”

Fans can certainly be sympathetic to that. But the “Mike” situation is far from the first time that a subject has no participation in a project about them, and it’s not even the first time this year that they have been irate about it.

NBA legend Jerry West even threatened to take his claims against HBO’s portrayal of him in “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” all the way to the Supreme Court.

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Lily James as Pamela Anderson in “Pam & Tommy.”

Pamela Anderson refused to engage with Hulu’s other series, “Pam & Tommy,” which recontextualizes her and ex-husband Tommy Lee’s sex tape scandal as the traumatic and sexist event that it was, especially for the former “Baywatch” actor. She, like Tyson, vowed to tell her own account of her story with a separate upcoming project.

But as we saw with “Pam & Tommy,” just because a star isn’t involved with a project about their life doesn’t automatically mean the story is bad, inaccurate or defamatory. The series is actually quite empathetic to Anderson’s ordeal. It also crystallizes how women’s bodies are no longer their own once they become a celebrity, an issue we’re still reckoning with today.

Ahouraian says that people have different reasons for reacting to things like that. Anderson didn’t necessarily want to revisit this time in her life. Meanwhile, Mike Tyson seems to want to be his own storyteller.

“But also I think: What can there possibly be in [‘Mike’] that we haven’t already heard?” Ahouraian asks. “Stories of women? I don’t know. There isn’t much, I think, that can be told beyond what we already know other than we’re putting it all in one place as a story.”

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The matter of truth, though, is a tricky one because dramatized accounts like “Pam & Tommy,” “Winning Time” and even “Mike” are first and foremost indebted to the idea of what makes a good story. That means some things might be embellished, which is a turnoff for some viewers going in with the expectation that they’re watching a word-for-word chronicle of someone’s life.

Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in “Blonde.”

That’s not their purpose.

And even those sometimes have the full support of the subject, or, like in the case of Netflix’s upcoming Marilyn Monroe drama “Blonde,” their estate.

“Having the cooperation, I think, is more important when you’re planning on things that make the story better or more cinematic or more engaging,” Ahouraian expounds. “Some things you play up, some things you play down.”

She thinks about that before adding, “And we all know what plays well for entertainment is sort of different in big movies or things that are dramatized.”

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That’s definitely sometimes true. But it’s also important to point out here that many estates like Marilyn Monroe’s aren’t always invested in the storytelling aspect. In fact, oftentimes their main incentive is money.

“So, if there’s something that could potentially make the trust money, that’s really where the duty lies,” Ahouraian said, “versus the family member who could put a stop to things [that] have different incentives, perhaps.”

That only underscores the fact that not every movie or TV series that is authorized automatically makes it a better or more thoughtful story. Or even a complete one, for that matter. Because sometimes even those who authorize it have other objectives.

Jennifer Lopez in “Halftime.”

This includes celebrities who authorize and appear in documentaries and docuseries about them. A concern that immediately comes to mind is how much control they have over the narrative, which in turn sparks questions about what is being left out of it.

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Like, what is the point of watching Jennifer Lopez rehash her storied career and unparalleled ambition in the Netflix documentary “Halftime” — especially when it doesn’t also challenge her on some of the valid issues fans have brought up about her over the years?

Or what makes Lifetime’s “Janet Jackson” docuseries worth our time if it’s only going to explore all the things even a casual fan of the pop star has already known for years — her incredible talent, the many well-documented stories about her family, the speculation about her weight?

If we’re not learning anything new, or if the story is so heavily curated that it could have easily been an Instagram reel, then why bother with it?

Ahouraian suggests that in today’s day and age, fans’ access to a celebrity is everything. It brings them that much closer to their favorite star.

Janet Jackson during the State of the World Tour 2018.

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“Anytime you have a fan, it’s somebody who is an advocate of the artist or the celebrity,” she said. “And so they’re very much invested in hearing their true story coming from them, especially at a time where we have such accessibility to our celebrities with social media and everything.”

But then you can ask the same questions that you would if it was unauthorized: What is missing or being embellished in this story? What information does the celebrity feel that they have a reason to protect?

This most recently came to mind when Madonna confirmed that she would direct a movie about her life. She had an understandable reason — so her personal story wouldn’t get into the wrong, “misogynistic” hands — but the concerns remain the same: Which story will she tell, and how will she tell it?

“That’s the nature of when people talk about celebrities; there’s always this aspect of ‘we want scandal’ versus ‘I would love to hear Madonna’s story,’” Ahouraian said. “I would much rather have her tell it than somebody who never even grew up with Madonna. Right?”

Context will be critical with Madonna’s story — as it should be with anyone else’s. And it’s possible that someone who didn’t experience, say, ’80s Madonna in real time won’t understand that. But the subject doing their own storytelling? That just brings up another uneasiness.

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Although ― there’s something to be said about the fact that someone like Tyson, who must realize that he doesn’t have a legal case against Hulu, used his platform in such a way that some of his most devoted fans have already abandoned “Mike.” It’s a manipulation of control and power back into his own hands.

Mike Tyson is seen in attendance during the UFC 270 event at Honda Center on January 22, 2022 in Anaheim, California.

Chris Unger via Getty Images

“I think that that’s why he’s taken to the public, right?” Ahouraian asked. “Because he does have a powerful fan base — even on the Live it was like, ‘We’re going to boycott Hulu, and we’re not going to watch the [series].’”

But Ahouraian also notes, Tyson’s rants might accidentally get others actually interested in the show.

“There will be fans who are like, ‘We’re not going to support this thing that you don’t support,’” she explained. “And on the other hand, [there will be a] curiosity of other people who are like, ‘What’s in this thing that he doesn’t want out there?’”

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That’s the double-edge sword here, but it’s really all Tyson has. “That’s the power of celebrity,” Ahouraian said, referring to Tyson’s social media tactics. “But he doesn’t have other recourse, which is why he’s turning to that.”

And for those who choose not to watch “Mike,” will it be because of Tyson’s animus toward it or because they don’t trust the material? We might never know.

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