Who Will Play Boxer Jack Johnson In ‘Unruly’, An HBO Series?

One of the most dominant boxers of his era will be getting the big-screen treatment. Deadline was the first to report that Jack Johnson, the first African American Heavyweight Champion, will be portrayed by two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali.

Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman will co-produce the series “Unruly”, which is a six-part HBO documentary. Ken Burns will also produce the series and direct it. This will be based on the PBS documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.

According to the synopsis on Deadline, “Unruly” is 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.”

Born in 1878, Johnson (70-11-11, 3 NC) made his professional debut in 1897. He rose to prominence in 1908, when during the height of the “Jim Crow” era, won the lineal heavyweight title off of Tommy Burns in Australia. From 1908 until 1915, Johnson defended the title eight times. He gained recognition in a positive and negative light.

The moniker “The Great White Hope” was used for those of another color to take the title from him. That included James Jeffries and would eventually be used for fighters like Gerry Cooney and Tommy Morrison throughout boxing’s history. This was even discussed in Cooney’s book. Jeffries was brought out of retirement to face Johnson. Johnson would lose the title to Jess Willard and was eventually arrested for violating the Mann Act. He died in 1946 but was later pardoned by President Donald Trump in 2015.

Ali, who won awards for roles in films like Moonlight and Green Book, has portrayed Johnson before. In 2000, Ali performed one of his first professional acting jobs in “The Great White Hope”, acting as the “Galveston Giant” Johnson.

The series has been in development since about 2013.

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