unruly

Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali is set to play legendary boxer Jack Johnson in Unruly, a six-part limited series for HBO, from Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman‘s Playtone. Dominique Morisseau is writing the script, based on the Geoffrey C. Ward book Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, which was adapted into a PBS documentary from director Ken Burns.

During the Jim Crow era, Jack Johnson became the country’s first African American world heavyweight boxing champion, which launched him to fame, and also opened him up to racist criticism. Now Johnson’s story will be the subject of an HBO limited series called Unruly, with Mahershala Ali playing the boxer. Ali has expressed interest in playing Johnson before, telling THR in 2017: “There are so many wonderful characters out there. He is somewhat of a tragic figure, but I would love to play Jack Johnson.” This actually won’t be Ali’s first time playing Johnson, either. The actor played the boxer in a 2000 revival of the stage play The Great White Hope.

Ali will executive produce the series via his production company Know Wonder, alongside his wife Amatus Karim Ali and producing partner Mimi Valdés. Screenwriter Dominique Morisseau is also executive producing along with Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, and Ken Burns. House of Cards creator Beau Willimon will co-executive produce along with Steven Shareshian.

Per Deadline, Unruly is “described as an unapologetically Black, no-holds-barred telling of Jack Johnson (Ali), the world’s first Black Heavyweight Boxing Champion. This bold exploration depicts the champion’s rise to athletic greatness and the costs he paid for his skin and defiance, which created a blueprint for Black resistance in every justice movement for generations to come.”

For additional background, here’s the synopsis of the Geoffrey C. Ward book Unforgivable Blackness, which serves as inspiration for the series:

Jack Johnson battled his way out of obscurity and poverty in the Jim Crow South to win the title of heavyweight champion of the world. At a time when whites ran everything in America, he took orders from no one and resolved to live as if color did not exist. While most blacks struggled simply to exist, he reveled in his riches and his fame, sleeping with whomever he pleased, to the consternation and anger of much of white America. Because he did so the federal government set out to destroy him, and he was forced to endure prison and seven years of exile. This definitive biography portrays Jack Johnson as he really was–a battler against the bigotry of his era and the embodiment of American individualism.

Ali is a phenomenal actor, and this seems like the perfect part for him to excel in. Ali is also set to star in Benjamin Cleary’s Swan Song for Apple TV+, and play the title role in Marvel’s Blade.

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