Mahershala Ali is attached to play boxer Jack Johnson in a limited series currently in the works at HBO, Variety has learned.
The six-part series is titled Unruly. It is described as an unapologetically Black, no-holds-barred telling of Johnson’s life. The first ever Black heavyweight boxing champion, the show would follow Johnson’s rise to greatness and the costs he paid for his skin color and defiance.
The series is based on the PBS documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, which was produced and directed by Ken Burns, as well as the accompanying book by Geoffrey C. Ward. It was first put into development at HBO back in 2013 with Beau Willimon originally attached to write.
Dominique Morisseau will serve as writer and executive producer on the series now, with Ali executive producing under his Know Wonder banner in addition to starring. Tom Hanks will executive produce via Playtone along with Gary Goetzman. Burns will also executive produce for Florentine Films along with Mimi Valdés and Amatus Karim Ali of Know Wonder. Willimon will co-executive produce along with Playtone’s Steven Shareshian.
Ali previously played Johnson in a stage production of “The Great White Hope” in 2000 (pictured above) and has previously spoken about his desire to play Johnson onscreen. The role would also bring Ali back to HBO, where he starred in the third season of True Detective, for which he earned an Emmy nomination last year.
His other TV roles include a recent turn on Ramy Season 2 and in Luke Cage Season 1. He also appeared in House of Cards, which also netted him an Emmy nomination. On the film side, Ali won two Oscars for his roles in both Moonlight and Green Book. He is also attached to star in a new Blade film for Marvel.
He is currently under a first-look deal at HBO, where he and Know Wonder produced the documentary series We Have a Dream: The Kids of the Oakland MLK Oratorical Fest, directed by Amy Schwartz.
Morisseau is a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant. She is the Tony-nominated book writer for the Broadway musical Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of The Temptations. Her television credits include working as a co-producer on Shameless. She currently has a pilot in development at FX. On the film side, she previously wrote 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.
Ali is repped by WME, Anonymous Content, and Sloane Offer. Morisseau is repped by Paradigm and Schreck Rose.