Mahershala Ali to portray Jack Johnson, boxing's first Black heavyweight champ, in HBO series

One of the most notable athletes in American history is getting the Hollywood treatment, with a two-time Oscar winner playing him.

Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight champion in boxing history, will be played by Mahershala Ali in a six-part series titled “Unruly,” according to Variety's Joe Otterson. The series is reportedly being developed by HBO with Tom Hanks involved as an executive producer, and has been described as “an unapologetically Black, no-holds-barred telling of Johnson’s life.”

Both Johnson’s rise to international fame and the more turbulent later stages of his career will be reportedly shown. The series is based on Ken Burns’ PBS documentary “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” and the accompanying book by Geoffrey C. Ward. It has reportedly been in development since 2013.

Jack Johnson’s legacy

Before Jackie Robinson was breaking the MLB color barrier in 1947, Johnson was challenging the very concept of white superiority in sports when he defeated Tommy Burns for the heavyweight title in 1908.

As you could imagine, the idea of a Black man holding the heavyweight belt brewed enough publicity and racial animosity that former heavyweight champion James Jeffries was brought out of retirement and promoted as “The Great White Hope.” Jeffries’ intentions with the fight were plain: show that white people are physically superior to Black people.

“I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro,” Jeffries was quoted as saying.

The New York Times even attempted to explain away Johnson’s potential success as an anomaly when it came to the abilities of white and Black athletes:

"If the Black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors."

Johnson’s dominant performance in the resulting “Fight of the Century” was a landmark moment in not just sports, but in American history. He would later retire with a record of 70-11-11, and faced constant race-motivated scrutiny for the rest of his life, including the time he spent a year in prison for violating the Mann Act with a white prostitute.

Clearly, Ali and the production company have a lot to work with. Ali, fortunately, has some experience in the matter.

FILE - In this 1932 file photo, boxer Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight champion, poses in New York City.  A Texas Gulf Coast home where Johnson once lived has been heavily damaged in a fire. The blaze caused a wall to collapse in the vacant home Friday, April 5, 2019 in Galveston, Texas. Fire Chief Mike Wisko said that the building was in the process of being renovated. (AP Photo/File)
Jack Johnson faced unthinkable racism for daring to excel at sports as a Black man. (AP Photo/File)

Mahershala Ali has played Jack Johnson before

Ali has previously played Johnson in a stage production of “The Great White Hope” in 2000.

Ali, who later went on to win Academy Awards for “Moonlight” and Green Book,” clearly enjoyed the experience of playing Johnson, as he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017 that Johnson would be a “dream role” on screen:

He is somewhat of a tragic figure, but I would love to play Jack Johnson. I would love to play Marvin Gaye. Marvin Gaye and Jack Johnson are my dream roles, but I really just want the opportunity to go on the hero’s journey. I’ve never done that.

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