Jan. 28, 1952 — Jan. 27, 2023
Gregory Allen Howard ’74 spent his professional life pushing Hollywood toward “climate change” on race.
Howard’s life mirrored the stories he loved to tell — Black people who overcame the odds to bring positive change. He is best known for writing the screenplay of Remember the Titans, the story of the 1971 T.C. Williams Titans, a high school football team in Alexandria, Virginia, brought together by integration and led by a newly installed Black football coach, Herman Boone. Boone retains the former head coach, who is white, as his defensive coordinator, and through Boone’s demanding training camp, the players bond and racial barriers begin to fade.
The diverse coaching staff also comes together. The team finishes undefeated and wins the state championship.
“Greg really was a standout observer and a great writer,” says Larry Guterman, a director who was fresh out of Harvard and working as a script reader when he met Howard in 1988. “His insights into the human psyche are what gave him the ability to write the way he did. People say that movie is about race, and it is, but it’s really about people coming together. Even to this day, to a lot of people, that movie is more than a movie.”
Remember the Titans delivers a powerful message, but it’s a message Howard sometimes wondered if he’d ever get to deliver. This was not a famous book adapted for the screen. It was a story discovered by a struggling Black screenwriter in his mid-40s, just as he was about to give up.
A history major, Howard had a brief career with Merrill Lynch before heading to Hollywood to chase his dream of writing for film. He ended up with a telemarketing job at night that allowed him to write all day. He submitted scripts to anyone who would take them for 18 months but did not get a single bite — until Guterman called.
“He told me he was ready to quit. I told him I’d read his stuff and I liked it. There was something there. He was so happy just to get some feedback,” Guterman says.
The two men became close friends. Howard landed work with an entertainment company that was developing projects for Disney.
Howard showed his creativity when he received his first assignment, to write the story of Harriet Tubman, who in 1849 escaped slavery, fled to Philadelphia, and became an activist remembered for her life-or-death missions to rescue other slaves. Howard had studied Tubman’s life while at Princeton.
“I said, ‘OK, well, great. I know all about her. But I want to take a different approach. I don’t like history lessons, and I get bored easily when these period movies are made … . I want to make her an action adventure hero,’” Howard recalled in a 2019 interview with Vox. He believed his version would make Tubman more accessible to a contemporary audience.
Howard wrote the screenplay in 1994. His bosses loved it, even sent him a bottle of Champagne. Disney executives read it, also loved it — and shelved it. Howard was told the company looks at hundreds of projects and it did not make the cut.
“I thought I was just pushing one movie about one little Black woman,” he said in the Vox interview. “But I wasn’t — I was asking the industry to change, and it wasn’t ready to change. It wasn’t ready to be diverse. It wasn’t ready to open itself up to other voices.”
After a few more frustrating years, Howard returned to his native Virginia, settling in Alexandria. “When you hear ‘no’ that much, you just begin to think, ‘I guess they’re right,’” he told The New York Times in 2000.
But when Howard heard the story of the 1971 Titans and the team’s impact on race relations in Alexandria, he gave it one more try. He again endured numerous rejections until famed producer Jerry Bruckheimer took an interest in the project. Director Boaz Yakin’s film was released in September 2000.
The movie starred Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington as Boone and was an immediate success. Howard became the first Black screenwriter of a movie to gross more than $100 million.
“He was determined. From the time he saw Network — it was his favorite movie — he was convinced it was his destiny to write movies,” Guterman says. “Back then, there was no one like him. There were other Black filmmakers who had gone to film school, but Greg came from Princeton. He was a literary writer. … Greg was a trailblazer, he really was.”
A year later, Howard was a co-writer on Ali, the life story of legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. Both films are regularly included on lists of the best sports movies based on real events.
Howard called his success a dream come true, but it did not seem to change the big picture for a Black man. Ten years later, he looked back on his involvement in the two films as a “miracle.”
It was someone else’s movie, Twelve Years a Slave, that caught Howard’s eye. The film was released in 2013 and grossed almost $200 million worldwide.
Howard had not forgotten the script he called “my baby.” This was his opportunity to rescue Tubman. After being told for years that “nobody’s going to see a slave movie,” Howard sensed changing attitudes. He found a supporter in producer Debra Martin Chase and reacquired the rights to his screenplay. Harriet was filmed in Virginia in 2018 and released a year later — 25 years after Howard’s first screenplay.
“Now the door was open. #OscarsSoWhite, DiversityHollywood, and other pushes and protests for inclusion and diverse storytelling had moved the needle: The climate had changed,” Howard wrote in a 2019 essay for the Los Angeles Times.
“As someone who has been in this business for decades, I am enjoying the warmth of the Hollywood climate.”
Harriet garnered many awards, including two Oscar nominations, and was described by The New York Times as “accessible, emotionally direct and artfully simplified.”
At the time of his death, one day shy of his 71st birthday, Howard had several projects in the works, including a biopic on Marlon “The Magician” Briscoe, who in 1968 became the first Black starting quarterback in professional football.
David Meeks is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.