July 22, 1954 |
Washington, D.C., U.S.
|Occupation||Director, producer, screenwriter|
She became interested in theater while attending Howard University, and her first plays were produced around 1977. About 1990, she wrote for Brewster Place, a show produced by Harpo Productions. After this, Oprah Winfrey became a supporter and, on occasion, financial backer.
In 1994, she directed the short film Tuesday Morning Ride, which starred Ruby Dee and Bill Cobbs, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film in 1995. She is the only African-American woman to be nominated for directing work.
Early life and career beginnings
Houston was born on July 22, 1954, in Washington, D.C. She developed an interest in theater when her mother taught her how to read and write before entering kindergarten. She states she never played with dolls because she found them boring. Instead, she would play with stuffed animals because, in her eyes, stuffed animals had true unique personalities. At the age of eight or nine, she began to write scripts for her stuffed animals and learned stage directions from a riverboat toy that opened up and became a stage. The boat came with characters and scripts allowing her to explore her imagination and become more inspired to become an actress.
Trained as an actress, she was very active in the D.C theater circuit. Houston wanted to be a child star. She was deeply disappointed when she failed to gain a role as a Mouseketeer on the Walt Disney TV series The Mickey Mouse Club. In her teens, Houston left D.C. to try her luck in New York, but became frustrated with the quality of acting roles available to black women. Houston resumed her education and attended Howard University, located in northwestern Washington, D.C.
Houston began to write and direct her own plays. Her first play was produced about 1977. She was offered a chance to doctor a script owned by Warner Bros. Her input and revision of the script led to other screenwriting assignments. She later worked in New York City, Amsterdam, and Berlin, gaining a screenwriter’s view of a world outside the United States. In 1990, she returned to the United States.
In that same year, she became executive story editor for an American drama series called Brewster Place, based on Gloria Naylor’s novel, The Women of Brewster Place, which aired on ABC in May 1990, and was filmed entirely in Chicago. The series starred Oprah Winfrey, who also served as co-executive producer, and funded the series with her own production company, Harpo Productions. The series was canceled after a month, but Houston maintained a close friendship with Winfrey, who remained a supporter and, on occasion, became a financial sponsor for some of Houston’s later films.
In 1992, Houston was the associate producer for a TV film called You Must Remember This, which portrays a highly principled African-American independent filmmaker, played by Robert Guillaume.
In 1994, Houston created the screen play for Override, a science fiction film based on the short story "Over the Long Haul" by Martha Soukup. The film was directed by Danny Glover and starred Lou Diamond Phillips and Emily Lloyd.
Her partnership with Glover was critical because he introduced Houston to the Chanticleer Discovery program, which enables industry professionals to direct their first film. From a pool of 1,000, Houston was one of four chosen. Using the Chanticleer Discovery program's resources, Houston was able to write, direct, and produce her short film titled Tuesday Morning Ride in 1994.
Tuesday Morning Ride was based on the short story "A Summer Tragedy", by Arna Bontemps, a Harlem Renaissance writer. Set in the 1930s, the story depicts an old man and woman who feel they have nothing to live for, since their children do not visit. They are so depressed that they eventually take themselves over a cliff. Houston’s portrayal of the characters is different. The elderly couple (Bill Cobbs and Ruby Dee) wake up on a Tuesday morning and finish preparing for their last few hours in their home before they have to move into an old people’s home. The couple has everything to live for, but lack a society to do it in. Tuesday Morning Ride gained Houston a nomination for an Academy Award in the category Best Live Action Short Film in 1995.
As the Academy Award nominations were announced, it became apparent that Houston was the only one of the 166 nominees who was an African American. Jesse Jackson responded by calling for a boycott of the Academy Awards ceremonies to call attention to what he labeled as "institutional racism in the Hollywood film industry”.
When asked if she was surprised by the nomination for Tuesday Morning Ride, she answered “No”. She had always wanted to be recognized as a director and knew she would need to make an outstanding piece of work that would be Oscar-worthy. She intended to make Tuesday Morning Ride the film that would get her that recognition. Ironically, because she was the only African American to be nominated that year, her accomplishment as the only African American woman director to be nominated was overlooked. Her nomination did lead, however, to several offers to direct feature films, and she continues to produce, write, and direct films.
In 1996, with Scott Abbott, Houston co-wrote the TV movie Run for the Dream: The Gail Devers Story. Gail Devers, played by Charlayne Woodard, was one of the best female sprinters in America, who seemed assured a place on the United States Olympic team to compete in the 100-meter hurdles in the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988. Graves' disease prevented her from competing in the Seoul Olympics. Devers underwent radiation treatment for two years but eventually recovered and earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for the 1992 games in Atlanta, Georgia.
In 2000 Houston was the executive story editor and director of the television series City of Angels, a medical drama that was broadcast for two seasons on CBS. This show was the network's first medical drama composed of a predominantly African-American cast.
In 2002 she directed NYPD Blue a television series set in the 15th police division of New York City. Each week two partners, detectives Andy Sipowicz and John Kelly (later replaced by Bobby Simone), are the central characters in the police drama.
In 2004 Houston directed the NBC television series Crossing Jordan. Dr. Jordan, played by Jill Hennessy, is a forensic pathologist who tends to be overly passionate about solving homicides and frequently extends her search for answers outside of the autopsy table.
In 2005 Houston wrote the movie Knights of the South Bronx with Jamal Joseph. Inspired by a true story, the film portrays Richard Mason (Ted Danson), who is middle-aged and unemployed when he begins teaching in an inner-city school in the Bronx. Instead of following the prescribed curriculum, Mason encourages his elementary school students by teaching them the game of chess.
Her latest movie was Take the Lead, in 2006. This urban drama was inspired by the life of Pierre Dulaine (played by Antonio Banderas), who was a prize-winning ballroom dancer and instructor who volunteered at elementary schools in one of the roughest neighborhoods in the Bronx. Given the tough assignment of a detention class, he teaches the students classical dance, which they mix with hip hop to create an exciting new style.
Houston is working on several projects for her company Fifth Day Film, which she formed with her best friend and executive producer, Konda Mason. One movie in the works has as its theme the division of African-American youth against itself and within itself, asking, "How do we get the young black people back?"
Houston is currently scheduled to write a film based on the life of rapper Melissa Arnette Elliott, better known as Missy Elliott, an American recording artist, singer-songwriter, dancer, actress, award winning producer, and designer. The film will try to depict the struggles the star had in the beginning of her career.
Houston would not label herself a black director, meaning that all her subject matter is about the black experience. She says, “I am a black woman whose career is directing, writing and producing.” She instead defines her work as trying to create roles for black people. She does not categorize this as creating black-themed films because she refuses to think that black people have black themes and white people have white themes. Houston states that there is always a key black character in all of her scripts because to her it is important to try to talk to people about getting the ghetto out of their heads, and embracing themselves not as black but as a world citizen.
Houston believes that an artist is responsible to her community, stating: “I keep steeping my responsibility to keep empowering African Americans and to keep telling the truth as I see it. My responsibility is to tell the stories that come through me and as my heart and mind perceive them. That might piss off a lot of people, and that’s fine. Because in the end you have to follow your gut and do what your instincts tell you to do.”
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