Mahershala Ali will play first Black heavyweight champ Jack Johnson in upcoming HBO series Unruly

Mahershala Ali will play first Black heavyweight champ Jack Johnson in upcoming six-part HBO series titled Unruly

  • Series is based on the 2004 documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson and the corresponding book 
  • HBO began developing the series in 2013 
  • Show will present ‘an unapologetically Black, no-holds-barred telling’ of the boxer’s life  
  • Ali has won Academy Awards for his performances in Moonlight and Green Book 

Mahershala Ali is set to portray iconic boxer Jack Johnson, who was the first Black heavyweight champion, in Unruly, a six-part series slated to air on HBO.

The production starring the 46-year-old actor is based on Ken Burns’s 2004 documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, and the corresponding Geoffrey C. Ward book.

HBO began developing in 2013 with Beau Willimon linked to the project, Variety reported.

Preview: Unruly will present 'an unapologetically Black, no-holds-barred telling of Jack Johnson, the world's first Black Heavyweight Boxing Champion,' producers said in a statement Tuesday

Coming soon: Mahershala Ali is set to portray iconic boxer Jack Johnson, who was the first Black heavyweight champion, in Unruly, a six-part series slated to air on HBO

The double Oscar winner will play the talented athlete throughout his life, depicting his success in the ring, in spite of the the racism and discrimination he endured.

Unruly will present ‘an unapologetically Black, no-holds-barred telling of Jack Johnson, the world’s first Black Heavyweight Boxing Champion,’ producers said in a statement Tuesday, according to The Wrap. ‘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.’

Ali, who’s won Academy Awards for his performances in Moonlight and Green Book, is an executive producer on the limited run series, along with screenwriter Dominique Morisseau. Willimon, Burns and Tom Hanks are also executive producers on the show.

Ali has past played the boxer in a 2000 play titled The Great White Hope.

Important role: The double Oscar winner will play the talented athlete throughout his life, depicting his success in the ring, in spite of the the racism and discrimination he endured

Important role: The double Oscar winner will play the talented athlete throughout his life, depicting his success in the ring, in spite of the the racism and discrimination he endured

The production is based on Ken Burns's 2004 documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, and the corresponding Geoffrey C. Ward book

The production is based on Ken Burns’s 2004 documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, and the corresponding Geoffrey C. Ward book 

The Oakland native was previously on the network’s True Detective, which got him an Emmy nod in 2019; he’s also appeared on TV shows including House of Cards, Ramy and Luke Cage.

Last year, in an interview with The Guardian, Ali opened up on the topic of racial prejudice and how it impacted how he dressed while living in New York City.

‘You’re walking on the street a lot, you’re on public transportation, you’re traveling late at night,’ he said. ‘And I remember I was always really conscious of how I dressed. Like, I wouldn’t wear clothes that allowed people to identify me with what I would think they would view as the typical Black man.

Feted: The Oakland native was previously on HBO's True Detective, which got him an Emmy nod in 2019

Feted: The Oakland native was previously on HBO’s True Detective, which got him an Emmy nod in 2019

‘I wouldn’t wear tennis shoes. It was a conscious thing, because I found that women would cross the street, day or night. Or turn their ring over on the subway – turn the diamond inward! These were little things I would catch all the time.’

Ali added, ‘How people would react to a large, fairly muscular, dark-skinned Black man – I would be so conscious of it and it would upset me.’

The actor said the reactions would impact his ‘energy for the rest of the day’ so he went out of his way to do things to preempt that.’

‘And so many Black people around the world do this. Because there’s an idea that we’re something to be feared, or that we pose a danger.’

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