Mahershala Ali is making moves under his first-look deal at HBO, as the two-time Oscar winner and True Detective star is set to play legendary boxer Jack Johnson in a limited series titled Unruly that Ali will executive produce with Tom Hanks and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.
Unruly is described as an unapologetically Black, no-holds-barred telling of Jack Johnson, the so-called Galveston Giant who rose to greatness and became the world’s first Black heavyweight champ (1908–1915) at the height of the Jim Crow era. Tony-nominated scribe Dominique Morisseau will write the six-part series, which will be based on Burns’ PBS documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson and its companion book by Geoffrey C. Ward.
Ali has said in multiple interviews that Jack Johnson was his “dream role.” He played Johnson 20 years ago in a stage production of The Great White Hope back in 2000, but that was in front of theater audiences, not on camera. Now, not only is Ali playing Johnson in a major miniseries, but he’s also executive producing Unruly via his production company Know Wonder alongside his wife Amatus Karim Ali and their producing partner Mimi Valdés. The trio also produced Amy Schatz‘s HBO documentary series We Have a Dream: The Kids of the Oakland MLK Oratorical Fest.
Joining Hanks and Burns as executive producers are Morisseau and Gary Goetzman, the latter of whom is Hanks’ longtime producing partner at Playtone, which produced such HBO hits as Band of Brothers, The Pacific, John Adams and Olive Kitteridge. Playtone’s Steven Shareshian will serve as a co-executive producer alongside Beau Willimon, the creator of House of Cards, which gave Ali one of his early TV roles.
Since then, Ali has gone on to play the villainous Cottonmouth on Netflix’s Luke Cage and the lead in season three of True Detective. He can currently be seen in the new season of Ramy on Hulu. Ali is also set to star in the Apple movie Swan Song and Marvel’s Blade.