HBO is developing Unruly, a six-part limited series about boxing legend Jack Johnson to be played by two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali. The project hails from Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman’s Playtone and will be written by Dominique Morisseau based 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.
Ali has stated multiple times over the past couple of years that playing Johnson on screen is his “dream role.” He previously portrayed the athletein one of his first professional acting jobs in a stage production of “The Great White Hope” in 2000 (photo above).
Unruly is described as an unapologetically Black, no-holds-barred telling of Jack Johnson (Ali), the world’s first Black Heavyweight Boxing Champion. 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 is executive producing Unruly via his production company Know Wonder alongside his wife Amatus Karim Ali and their producing partner Mimi Valdés. Morisseau executive produces alongside Goetzman and Hanks via Playtone and Ken Burns via Florentine Films.
Beau Willimon will serve as co-executive producer alongside Playtone’s Steven Shareshian.
Nicknamed the “Galveston Giant”, Jackson became the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion (1908–1915) at the height of the Jim Crow era, with his 1910 fight against James J. Jeffries dubbed the “fight of the century.”
This is Mahershala Ali, Amatus Karim Ali and Mimi Valdés’ second production at HBO where Ali has a first-look deal. Their first project was the documentary series We Have a Dream: The Kids of the Oakland MLK Oratorical Fest, directed by Amy Schatz.
Ali will star in the Marvel feature Blade and in the feature Swan Song, directed by Academy Award winner Benjamin Cleary for Apple TV+. Ali was nominated for an Emmy for his role in HBO’s True Detective last year and can currently be seen in Season 2 of Ramy on Hulu. He is repped by WME, Carolyn Govers at Anonymous Content, and Shelby Weiser at Sloane Offer.
Morisseau is the Tony-nominated book writer for the Broadway musical Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of The Temptations. She was a co-producer on Shameless, has a pilot in development at FX, and wrote the film Step for Fox Searchlight. She is also currently developing a new musical based on the Soul Train franchise. Her production company is FreeDom’s Daughter. She is repped by Paradigm, and David Berlin and Carolyn Conrad at Schreck Rose.
Playtone has a long history at HBO with such Emmy-winning limited series/miniseries as Band Of Brothers, The Pacific, John Adams and Olive Kitterige.