Mahershala Ali is set to star as boxing legend Jack Johnson in HBO’s Unruly.
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.
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Unruly will 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.
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Dominique Morisseau pen the upcoming six-part limited series and Ken Burns well direct the project.
Ali will executive producing Unruly via his production company Know Wonder. He will produce alongside his wife Amatus Karim Ali and their producing partner Mimi Valdés. Morisseau executive produces alongside Gary Goetzman and Tom Hanks via Playtone and Ken Burns via Florentine Films.
Beau Willimon will serve as co-executive producer alongside Playtone’s Steven Shareshian.