It’s not often boxing history fans have breaking news, outside of an anniversary or book release there’s seldom current affairs to discuss in our world. However, today is the exception.
The magazine Variety has reported that multiple time academy award winner Mahershala Ali is to play Jack Johnson in a limited series for HBO. Already in production the series will be Called ‘Unruly’ and is described as “Unapologetically Black, a no-holds-barred telling of Johnson’s life’
Johnson who was the heavyweight champion from 1908 to 1915 was one of boxing's most enigmatic and charismatic champions. Although he fought tremendous battles in the ring, the series will more than likely focus on the other great battle that defined Johnson’s life and career, race.
The first ever black heavyweight champion, raised in the Jim Crow south his story is inextricably linked to that of Black America. Discriminated against, attacked and ultimately prosecuted by the white establishment, his defiance offered empowerment to generations of future champions.
Without Johnson there would be no; Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield or Lennox Lewis. He laid the foundations on which all great black champions would build.
The series will be based on the Ken Burns documentary “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” as well as the accompanying book of the same name by Geoffrey C. Ward.
Acclaimed writer and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Dominique Morisseau will serve as writer and executive producer on the series. Ali himself will executive produce under his Know Wonder banner in addition to starring. Mega star Tom Hanks is also attached as an executive producer.
Ali previously played Johnson in a stage production of “The Great White Hope” in 2000 which is pictured at the top of the article. The play that was made famous by the 1970 film version which featured James Earl Jones in the lead role.
Since playing Johnson first time round Ali has won two Oscars for his roles in both “Moonlight” and “Green Book.”. Both films with profound socio political messages proving he is more than capable to handle a character of such magnitude.
Despite the thrill and the optimism there are still hurdles to climb before this piece can achieve its full potential. Casting, fight realism, historical accuracy and direction are all challenges, but I’m sure welcome ones to the film makers.
No other casting has yet been announced but with huge roles such as his eccentric promoter Tex Rickard, his wives Lucille Cameron and Etta Terry Duryea. Not to mention his epochal opponents; Ketchel, Langford, Jefferies, Fitzimmons and Willard, the casting decisions will be crucial to the success of the series.
I personally am absolutely over the moon at such a high profile series telling the Johnson story. It’s a story of love, loss, the most incredible highs and the most crushing lows. Boxing, race, class, discrimination and the Deep South are all characters in the Johnson story and I’m convinced an long form, episodic adaptation will be able to do them justice.
I think the current political climate has the world clamouring to hear black voices and know the black heroes of the past. Who better than Jack?
Ewan Breeze of SimBoxx
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