HBO has teamed up Playtone partners Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, historian and documentary writer Ken Burns and screenwriter and playwright Beau Willimon to create a miniseries about the life of the first African-American world heavyweight champion – Jack Johnson.
Jack Johnson (March 31, 1878 – June 10, 1946) was a heavyweight American boxing champion in the early 20th Century. He is described as a “proud man of color” who took a lot of chances and stirred up controversy wherever he went. Johnson twice married white women in a time when racial mixing was frowned upon, and he boasted often about his luxurious lifestyle. When Johnson was given a title shot by Canadian fighter Tommy Burns on December 26, 1908 he shocked both blacks and whites by beating him. Johnson then went on to knock out James J. Jeffries in 1910 (who came out of retirement for the sole reason of try and beat Johnson, being called by the press and racist whites “Great White Hope”). The celebrations that resulted from this defeat led to clashes between celebrating African-American crowds and white crowds which led to more than 20 deaths as a result of race riots.
Johnson found that he was being prosecuted at every turn. The U.S. government prosecuted him for violating the Mann Act, when he brought his fiancé across state lines, and sentenced him to a year in prison. Instead, Johnson fled to Canada and eventually left for Europe where he lived as a fugitive for seven years. Johnson was promised no jail time if he agreed to relinquish his heavyweight title to a white challenger, and he lost the fight to Jess Willard in Cuba on April 5, 1915. He went to prison for a year in September of 1920 in Leavenworth, Kansas anyways.
The miniseries will be told in four to six parts and is based off of the Geoffrey C. Ward book ‘Unforgiveable Blackness: The Rise And Fall Of Jack Johnson’. Hanks, Goetzman and Burns are executive producing and Burns in directing.