EXCLUSIVE: HBO has set Ides Of March screenwriter and playwright Beau Willimon to write Jack Johnson, a miniseries about the life of the first African-American world heavyweight champion. The mini teams Playtone partners Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman and historian and documentary director Ken Burns. To be told in four to six parts, the mini is based on the Geoffrey C. Ward book Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise And Fall Of Jack Johnson, which Burns previously adapted into the Emmy-winning PBS documentary of the same name. Burns is aboard to direct. Hanks and Goetzman are exec producers, and Burns is too. Willimon is co-exec producer.
In the early 20th Century, Johnson was the class of the heavyweight division, a proud man of color who paid a high price for it. The main problem: he twice married white women and did not hide it or the fact that he liked to live well. He surprised both whites and blacks when he was given a title shot by Canadian fighter Tommy Burns and beat him. He further shook up the white status quo by knocking out ex-champ James J. Jeffries, who’d refused to fight Johnson while he held the belt but came out of retirement to be touted by the press and racist whites as the “Great White Hope.” In the aftermath of Jeffries’ defeat, celebrations by African-Americans led to clashes with sore white crowds, and more than 20 deaths were reported across the country in the race riots.
Unable to find someone to beat him in the ring, the white establishment targeted Johnson in other ways. The U.S. government prosecuted him for violating the Mann Act, for transporting his wife-to-be across state lines. Even though he was sentenced to a year in prison, Johnson would not give up the heavyweight belt. He disguised himself as a member of a black baseball team and fled to Canada. He landed in Europe and remained a fugitive for seven years. In Paris, he defended his heavyweight belt three times before agreeing to fight Jess Willard in Cuba. Many felt he deliberately lost because he had been promised no jail time if he relinquished the title to a white challenger. Johnson still served a year in a federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas.
While his unjust treatment was chronicled in the James Earl Jones-starrer The Great White Hope on Broadway and then the big screen, and in Burns’ meticulously researched documentary, Johnson has never really been given a fair shake. Attempts to gain a posthumous pardon for the fighter have so far been unavailing, despite being passed by both houses of Congress.
This become the second big miniseries that Hanks and Goetzman have recently set at HBO, where they’ve previously done John Adams and teamed with Steven Spielberg on The Pacific and Band of Brothers. They just announced they will team again with Spielberg on a third WWII mini, partly based on the Donald L. Miller book Masters Of The Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought The Air War Against Nazi Germany. Playtone also produced Big Love and the acclaimed miniseries Game Change.
Willimon turned his play Farragut North into Ides Of March, which he co-wrote with George Clooney and Grant Heslov. He’s currently executive producer and writer of House Of Cards, the Netflix series collaboration between David Fincher and Kevin Spacey. He’s repped by CAA.