Mike Tyson's Turn on 'SVU'

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

Alyssa Rosenberg looks at Law and Order SVU's decision to cast Mike Tyson as a death-row inmate. The casting choice has pissed off a few of the show's fans:

Tyson's paid his debt to society and deserves a chance to work in his chosen profession, which is acting. But it's not as if the man lacks for opportunities. The director James Toback has featured Tyson as himself in his features When Will I Be Loved and Black and White, and he examined Tyson's life in a documentary that premiered at Cannes in 2008. Tyson's been in both Hangover movies, and Spike Lee produced Tyson's one-man show, Undisputed Truth, which got a Broadway run--an exceedingly rare opportunity. I don't really think there's any question that Tyson has gotten a fair shot to pursue work in the entertainment industry, even if we're applying a heightened standard to compensate for the idea that there's employment discrimination against people who have been incarcerated...

As a potentially sympathetic killer, it doesn't sound like Tyson will be bringing local cred or fading into an out-of-the-box role—and the worry is that the character's proximity to Tyson's life story will somehow whitewash his crimes. Without having seen the episode, none of us can really say. But Leight better hope that casting Tyson in this part really does lend life experience to the show and deepen the episode. Otherwise, it's SVU handing over its credibility to someone who still hasn't earned it.

Over at Jezebel, Lindy West fumes:

Now, Tyson completed his sentence and is free to live his life at this point. But that doesn't mean we all have to be complicit in the rehabilitation of his image. That doesn't mean SVU has to hire him. Like I said, SVU's not perfect, but it's something--a small counterpoint to the rape apologia that currently pervades our culture. It at least attempts to unpack tough ideas about shame and victim blaming and the way we protect rapists by stigmatizing sexual violence. Mariska Hargitay runs a foundation to support victims of sexual abuse, for Christ's sake. When I wrote about SVU before, I heard from a lot of victims who say they find SVU therapeutic.

As West and Rosenberg point out, Tyson actually was convicted and did actually serve time. So it's not as if there was no justice. For that reason, I've generally been in the "let him live" crowd. But conviction cuts both ways. It's always disturbed me that some of the people who cast Tyson—or rather James Toback, specifically—have never really grappled with what Tyson was actually convicted of doing. (West outlines the specifics.) That aside, the specific point here is that it is bizarre to cast a convicted rapist in a show where sexual violence is such a persistent theme.

This is about more than "letting Tyson get on with his life." As Alyssa points out, he's gotten on with his life quite well.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/01/mike-tysons-turn-on-svu/272620/