In the last three decades, Mike Tyson’s tumultuous life story has been retold and repackaged in myriad books, shows, podcasts and documentaries — often with the input of the former heavyweight champion himself.
But in “Mike,” the unauthorized Hulu miniseries that Tyson has repeatedly disavowed, executive producers Karin Gist and Samantha Corbin-Miller wanted to reexamine a key part of Tyson’s story from the perspective of Desiree Washington, the 18-year-old Miss Black America contestant who accused him of luring her to his room at the Canterbury Hotel in Indianapolis and raping her in the early hours of July 19, 1991.
Tyson was convicted on multiple charges, including rape, on Feb. 10, 1992, and sentenced to six years in prison. He was released in March 1995 and has continued to maintain his innocence. Following the trial, Washington agreed to a single sit-down interview, with Barbara Walters on ABC’s “20/20” but has since vanished from the public eye.
Directed by Tiffany Johnson, the fifth episode of the eight-part series, “Desiree,” dramatizes Washington’s encounters with Tyson, as well as the latter’s criminal trial, drawing from news reports, public records and court transcripts. While the other installments use Tyson’s one-man show, “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth,” to make their iteration of the boxer — played by Trevante Rhodes — speak directly to the audience, the creative team felt it was imperative to recount the rape case from the point of view of his victim, whose decision to come forward in the early 1990s was largely met with vitriol and backlash.
“The more we dug into Desiree’s story, it became abundantly clear that this episode was hers and that it should stand alone as a sharp inflection point in a show that, up until now, had been told through the eyes of Mike,” Corbin-Miller, who co-wrote the episode with Gist, tells The Times.
After a months-long audition process, the producers chose Li Eubanks, who brought the right combination of “intelligence, warmth, vulnerability and strength,” to embody Washington, Corbin-Miller says. Eubanks, whose previous credits include “If Not Now, When?” and “All Rise,” admits that she had no prior knowledge of Washington or her controversial case, but she spent hours analyzing Washington’s interview with Walters — not only to study her cadence and mannerisms but also to gain more insight into her state of mind at the time of the assault.
Washington, who had been crowned Miss Black Rhode Island and voted friendliest and most talkative at her high school, was an incoming college freshman and had likely never spent time away from home by herself, Eubanks says, so it was important to show some of the naivety and innocence of youth. When Mike invites her out late one evening, Desiree thinks she is simply “meeting a celebrity for the first time — and not just any celebrity but a celebrity that her family loves and adores, that America loves and adores.”
But when Mike coaxes her up to his hotel room under the guise of wanting to “talk a little bit,” Desiree begins to feel increasingly uncomfortable, reflected in the way the camera slowly follows her around the room and pans down from above to make her look smaller. There “was such a brightness in her eyes, and then you kind of see that light just dim a little bit afterwards,” Eubanks says about the transformation of her character.
After Mike calls her “a good Christian girl,” Desiree, who has already declared that “one-night stands are not my thing,” goes to the bathroom in an effort to defuse the situation and collect herself, Eubanks explains. When she looks at herself in the mirror, Desiree is “telling herself, ‘I’m in a sticky situation, but I’m going to get out of this situation, and everything’s going to be fine.’ I think she was really holding on to every little bit of faith.”
The harrowing sexual assault is not depicted directly onscreen. But as Desiree, dressed in a gray suit on the witness stand, describes how Mike forced her to have nonconsensual, unprotected sex, viewers can hear the bed of the hotel room shaking and Desiree’s heavy breathing and strained pleas in the background. Given the sensitive nature of those scenes, Corbin-Miller, Gist and Johnson were “all extremely protective” of both Eubanks and Rhodes. “The set was closed with a skeleton crew for the assault scenes, and we gave the actors the time and support they needed to delve into some very dark moments,” Corbin-Miller reveals.
Three days after the assault, Washington went to the police and accused Tyson of rape. Six months later, she testified against him in open court — a scene that Eubanks says was “very chilling” and “jarring” to re-create, since the writers tried to stay true to the court transcripts. When Desiree first enters the courtroom, “It’s very silent, like you could hear a pin drop,” Eubanks says. “Oddly enough, it just felt like everybody was kind of against you, or everybody was just looking at you or judging you.”
During his trial, members of the Black community — including Black women and religious leaders — testified on Tyson’s behalf and a number continued to cast aspersions on Washington after the fact. “This all happened three decades before the #MeToo movement, [when] ‘blame the victim’ was still very much the norm, especially if said victim was going up against a powerful celebrity,” Corbin-Miller explains. “When this incident happened, William Kennedy Smith had just prevailed in his sexual assault trial, and Anita Hill’s testimony hadn’t stopped Clarence Thomas from getting appointed to the Supreme Court.”
In these people’s eyes, Eubanks says, “Because they already have this picture in their head of who this person is, what this person represents and what they mean to them, then nothing else can be truthful. When people really idolize somebody, it’s kind of hard to look at everything or consider that a few things can be true at once.”
Corbin-Miller is quick to point out that “the belief in Mike and vitriol directed at Desiree” wasn’t limited to Black people. Much of the general public took Tyson’s side. “But I believe it was the long, reprehensible history of Black men being falsely accused of rape in order to brutalize, incarcerate and murder them that influenced the majority of Black people to rally around Mike,” she says. “Mike was also one of a much smaller pool of A-list Black celebrities than we have today. To tear Mike Tyson off his heroic pedestal was, for many, a personal affront. Unfortunately, Desiree Washington, a Black woman, didn’t receive nearly as much unconditional public support.”
As Black women, “Sometimes we are very unprotected, we’re silenced, and we don’t have a voice as strong as we should, and I think she just kind of fell on that side,” Eubanks says. “I think people just saw [the trial] as her taking down Mike Tyson and her taking down this successful Black man versus [the fact that] she’s a Black woman and she got hurt too, so I don’t think anybody ever really stopped to think about that.”
Because Washington has avoided the public eye for the last three decades, some critics have argued that revisiting her story could be considered exploitative. But Corbin-Miller says the intent was to honor Washington’s story. “We wanted to allow her voice to be heard without being filtered through Mike, the media or public opinion as it was at the time. Our intent was to pay tribute to Desiree Washington’s courage in sticking to her guns and testifying against her abuser.”