Rodney Barnes and Melina Matsoukas join the Mahershala Ali-led HBO limited series about boxing legend Jack Johnson.
Barnes will pen the series and Matsoukas is directing. Both will executive produce the untitled Jack Johnson bio-series (formally titled Unruly) alongside Khaliah Neal.
The series is described as an unapologetically Black, no-holds-barred telling of Jack Johnson (Ali). Johnson was the world’s first Black Heavyweight Boxing Champion. It will tell the champion’s rise to athletic greatness. As well as the costs he paid for his skin and defiance, which created a blueprint for Black resistance in every justice movement for generations to come.
The biopic-series is be based on the 2004 Ken Burns PBS documentary, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, as well as the book by Geoffrey C. Ward, which accompanied the film.
Nicknamed the “Galveston Giant”, Jackson became the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion (1908–1915) at the height of the Jim Crow era, with his 1910 fight against James J. Jeffries dubbed the “fight of the century.”
This won’t be the first time Ali has portrayed Jack Johnson.
He starred as him in a 2000 stage production of The Great White Hope. The play also chronicled Johnson’s rise to fame amid his marriage to first wife Etta Terry Duryea in 1911. She also happened to be a white woman. Johnson was the heavyweight champion from 1908 through 1915, and came under fire many times for opening a desegregated restaurant and nightclub, and his many public relationships with white women.
Barnes, who is under an overall deal with HBO, takes over writing from Dominique Morisseau who was originally tapped to write the limited series from Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman’s Playtone.
Ali will executive producing the Jack Johnson bio-series via his production company Know Wonder. He will produce alongside his wife Amatus Karim Ali and their producing partner Mimi Valdés. Hanks and Goetzman executive produce for Playtone, along with Ken Burns via Florentine Films. Beau Willimon serves as co-executive producer alongside Playtone’s Steven Shareshian.
Barnes, as part of his HBO overall deal, co-wrote 9 of 10 episodes and served as executive producer on the first season of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, and is now working on the series’ upcoming second season.