Despite being the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson hasn’t been the subject of a biopic in half a century. That’s about to change: As per Deadline, HBO has announced a limited series, called Unruly, about the legendary pugilist, and it will star two-time Oscar-winner and future Blade Mahershala Ali.
Ali has long said that playing Johnson on screen was his “dream role,” although it won’t be the first time he’s played him. Back in 2000, two decades back, he starred in a stage production of The Great White Hope, Howard Sackler’s 1967 play, whose title refers to racist boxing promoters and press’ search for a white boxer to end his pioneering streak. It was turned into a movie in 1970 which starred James Earl Jones as “Jack Jefferson,” the play and film’s stand-in for Johnson.
The project, which comes from Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman’s Playtone, will be based on the last major screen work about the fighter, the 2004 TV documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, which was helmed by Ken Burns. That film featured Samuel L. Jackson as the voice of Johnson, alongside such august company as Jeffrey Wright, Keith David, Billy Bob Thornton, Ed Harris, Alan Rickman, Brian Cox, and more.
Johnson took the boxing world by storm in the early 20th century, but his success proved a double-edged sword. He was hounded by racists, who exploited the fact that he was married to a white woman to get him sentenced, on trumped-up charges, to a year in prison. That caused him to flee to Europe before returning home to serve his sentence. Johnson’s story has long been embraced by Black resistance movements and has inspired untold works of art, among them Miles Davis’ fusion classic A Tribute to Jack Johnson.