Spike Lee awarded $300,000 Gish Prize

Film director Spike Lee, founder and chief executive officer of 40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks, speaks during a Bloomberg Television interview in New York.
(Jin Lee)

To hear it from the Gish Prize Trust, Spike Lee did the right thing.

The trust announced Wednesday that Lee -- the firebrand writer-director-actor-educator behind such films as 1992’s “Malcolm X” and the hit “Inside Man” (2006) -- will be awarded the 20th annual Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, a prestigious career achievement award that carries a reward of $300,000.

“We honor Spike Lee for his brilliance and unwavering courage in using film to challenge conventional thinking, and for the passion for justice he feels in his soul,” Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation and chairman of the Gish Prize selection committee, said in a statement.

Chosen from among 30 finalists by a diverse field of creative people, Lee will be presented the honor on Oct. 30 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.


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The director’s body of work comprises music videos (for the likes of Public Enemy and Michael Jackson), TV commercials (most notably for Nike starring Michael Jordan) and documentaries (including the Oscar- and Emmy-nominated “4 Little Girls” and a segment on Georgetown coach John Thompson for HBO/Real Sports for which Lee won an Emmy).

But on the strength of Lee’s 1986 debut “She’s Gotta Have It” – and his most groundbreaking work, the searing urban drama “Do the Right Thing” (1989), which landed Lee Oscar nominations for best original screenplay, best film and best director – the Brooklyn-based filmmaker is recognized as helping usher in a new era for African American directors.

Also serving as the artistic director of New York University’s Graduate School of Film Program (from which he graduated), Lee’s prize arrives a month after the director raised $1.4 million via Kickstarter for his next “Spike Lee Joint” – the branded appellation all Lee’s movies carry.


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The Gish Prize was created under the will of the superstar actress of the 1910s and ‘20s Lillian Gish – whose long career included roles opposite her sister Dorothy – honoring “an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s understanding and enjoyment of life.”

Among the prize’s past recipients: Frank Gehry, Bob Dylan and Robert Redford as well as last year’s winner Anna Deavere Smith.

“Would you believe, two of the most important films that impacted me while I was studying at NYU starred Miss Lillian Gish,” Lee said in a statement, citing D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” and Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter.” “Isn’t it funny (sometimes) how life works?”



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Twitter: @__chrislee