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Mahershala Ali to play Jack Johnson in six-part HBO series ‘Unruly’

Johnson was boxing’s first Black heavyweight champion

Jack Johnson Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Patrick Stumberg is a freelance writer for SB Nation, first joining the network in 2011 before linking up with Bad Left Hook in 2015.

One of boxing’s most fascinating champions is set to get the HBO spotlight. Mahershala Ali, a man so lauded that his list of awards has its own Wikipedia page, will play legendary heavyweight Jack Johnson in the six-part ‘Unruly’, based on “the PBS documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, produced and directed by Ken Burns, and its companion book by Geoffrey C. Ward.”

Prolific Detroit playwright Dominique Morisseau will handle the writing duties, while Ali co-produces alongside Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks, and the aforementioned Burns. As the Deadline article mentions, this will be Ali’s second stint as the “Galveston Giant”, having taken over the role from James Earl Jones in Howard Sackler’s iconic play The Great White Hope.

Johnson became the first-ever Black heavyweight champion in 1908 and held the title until 1915. An unapologetic man in a deeply racist era, Johnson so rankled the boxing world that former champion Jim Jeffries was yanked out of retirement to become the eponymous Great White Hope, only for Johnson to batter him into submission in 15.

Johnson re-entered the public eye recently when he was posthumously pardoned for the crime of taking his white wife across state lines for “immoral purposes.” His story is one that resonates in this time of reckoning and it looks as though it’s being handled by experts. Looking forward to this one.

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