Gregory Allen Howard, a screenwriter who recounted stories of perseverance such as the football and racial drama “Remember the Titans” and the biopic “Harriet” on the life of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, died Jan. 27 in Miami. He was 70.
The death was announced by Mr. Howard’s publicist, Jeff Sanderson. No cause was given or other details about where Mr. Howard died.
Mr. Howard had story credits on films and series exploring Black struggles and successes, including “Ali” (2001) on the life of boxer Muhammad Ali starring Will Smith and Jamie Foxx. Mr. Howard also taught a screenwriting course at Howard University as a visiting professor.
His breakthrough project, “Remember the Titans” (2000), began with a story he heard while back in his native Virginia: how Black and White players came together on the T.C. Williams High School football team in 1971 on their way to an undefeated season and state championship. The screenplay did not find any takers until it was picked up by producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
The movie, starring Denzel Washington and Will Patton, was a box-office hit and grossed more than $130 million with its uplifting tale of teammates and a town trying to overcome prejudice. (The school had integrated years before, but 1971 brought a consolidation in the school system that forced more diversity.) After Los Angeles, a second premiere for the movie in Washington was attended by President Bill Clinton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and the team’s coaches and players.
But the film’s feel-good message also faced backlash for taking creative liberties, such as adding characters and events, and failing to dig deeper into the systemic racial injustices at the time.
“I don’t think ‘Remember the Titans’ reveals the ugly truth, but I think it’s a step,” actor Wood Harris, who played defensive end Julius Campbell in the film, told The Washington Post in 2020. “It brings you into the discussion, and now you can go visit the truth of things.”
Mr. Howard became a symbol of tenacity in his own right with “Harriet,” which took more than 25 years to go from script to screen. Mr. Howard began work in the early 1990s on the script under a deal with Disney.
The project was then repeatedly sidelined in what Mr. Howard saw as an unwillingness by Hollywood to take a financial risk on the Tubman story. Mr. Howard claimed that a studio executive in 1994 suggested Julia Roberts play Tubman. That story was never corroborated but was frequently retold by Mr. Howard in his accounts of the battles to find allies for the screenplay.
“You would have thought after ‘Titans,’ that would have been a paradigm shift for the industry and then they’d say, ‘Hey, let’s start doing diverse stories,’” Mr. Howard said. “No, they didn’t. It was an outlier. I was an outlier.”
He contended that the “Harriet” screenplay only began to gain traction after the success of films such as “12 Years a Slave” (2013) and “Black Panther” (2018), and campaigns for greater racial diversity in Hollywood productions.
“Harriet” premiered in 2019, starring Cynthia Erivo and Leslie Odom Jr., and directed by Kasi Lemmons, who shared screenwriting credits with Mr. Howard. Erivo received an Oscar nomination for her performance.
“What I realize now, in retrospect, is that I was asking the town to change. In other words, I thought I was just pushing one movie about one little black woman,” Mr. Howard said in a 2019 interview with Vox. “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.”
Gregory Allen Howard was born Jan. 28, 1952, in Norfolk, but moved frequently because of his stepfather’s assignments as a Navy chief petty officer.
Mr. Howard graduated in 1974 from Princeton University with a degree in American history and worked briefly for Merrill Lynch on Wall Street before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a writing career.
He was part of the writing team on several TV shows, including the Fox sitcom “True Colors,” and wrote a stage play, “Tinseltown Trilogy,” that weaves together the stories of three men in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve.
Survivors include a sister and brother; two nieces and a nephew.
“I got into this business to write about the complexity of the Black man,” Mr. Howard said in 2009. “I wanted to write about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Marcus Harvey. I think it takes a Black man to write about Black men.”