Ava DuVernay selected as first woman filmmaker to receive Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize

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Ava DuVernay [Courtesy photo]

The Gish Prize Trust has announced that writer, producer, director, and social justice activist Ava DuVernay has been selected to receive the 27th annual Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize in recognition of her ongoing achievements in inspiring change through the power of film and television.

She is the first woman filmmaker and fourth filmmaker overall – after Ingmar Bergman, Robert Redford and Spike Lee – to receive the prize, established in 1994 through the will of legendary screen and stage actress Lillian Gish, known as the First Lady of Cinema.

One of the most prestigious honors given to artists in the United States, the Gish Prize also bears one of the largest cash awards, currently valued at approximately $250,000, according to a news release.

The Gish Prize is given each year to a highly accomplished artist from any discipline who has pushed the boundaries of an art form, contributed to social change and paved the way for the next generation. The selection committee for the 2020 Gish Prize chose DuVernay from nearly 60 outstanding finalists in the fields of visual and performing arts, literature and arts administration.

She joins a list of distinguished honorees who have included, over the past decade, Walter Hood, Gustavo Dudamel, Elizabeth LeCompte, Suzan-Lori Parks, Maya Lin, Anna Deavere Smith, Trisha Brown and Chinua Achebe.

“When I was notified about the lovely prize, I asked to read Ms. Gish’s actual words regarding this gift as drafted in her will. She said the prize was to go to an artist who contributes to our understanding of ‘the beauty of life.’ What a notion. With her description, my own view of what I do has shifted slightly more toward embracing the beauty around me and welcoming it at every turn. This is one of those moments, and I am grateful,” DuVernay said in a statement.

Winner of BAFTA, Peabody, and Emmy Awards, DuVernay is the director of the Oscar-winning civil rights drama “Selma” (2014), the Oscar-nominated social justice documentary “13th” (2016), and the Disney family adventure movie “A Wrinkle in Time” (2018), which made her the highest-grossing Black woman director in American box office history.

In 2019, she created, wrote, produced and directed the Emmy Award-winning limited series “When They See Us,” dramatizing the lives of the falsely accused and imprisoned young Black men known as the Central Park Five. She is currently producing the fifth season of her acclaimed dramatic television series “Queen Sugar.”

Winner of the 2012 Sundance Best Director Prize for her second feature-length narrative film, “Middle of Nowhere,” DuVernay amplifies the work of Black artists, people of color, and women of all kinds through Array, the multi-platform arts collective she founded in 2010.

This year’s prize selection committee was chaired by Jamie Bennett, Executive Director of ArtPlace America, and included Patricia Cruz, Executive Director of Harlem Stage; Joseph V. Melillo, Executive Producer Emeritus at BAM; Meredith Monk, winner of the 2017 Gish Prize; and Zeyba Rahman, Senior Program Officer of the Building Bridges Program of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. Alberta Arthurs serves as advisor to the Gish Prize and selection committee.

“Ava DuVernay is an extraordinary filmmaker whose body of work as a writer, producer, director, distributor, and mentor perfectly embodies the outstanding achievements that the Gish Prize celebrates. As a committee, we went into the selection process thinking that we had been given an impossible task. Reflecting back, however, our choice was inevitable: Ms. DuVernay was exactly the artist to honor. We are as grateful for all she has already given the world, as we are excited by all she has yet to do,” Bennett said in a statement.

J.P. Morgan Private Bank is trustee of the Gish Prize Trust.

For more information, visit www.gishprize.org.

About Dorothy and Lillian Gish
Dorothy and Lillian Gish followed their mother onto the stage at an early age. The older of the two sisters, Lillian took her first theatrical curtain call in 1902 at the age of 8 in the play “In Convict’s Stripes.” In 1912, the sisters’ childhood friend Mary Pickford introduced them to D.W. Griffith, who launched their film careers. Lillian would become one of America’s best-loved actresses. In her 85-year career, she appeared in more than 100 films—from Griffith’s “An Unseen Enemy” (1912) to Lindsay Anderson’s “The Whales of August” (1987)—and also took numerous roles in television and on stage.

Dorothy Gish began her stage career at the age of 4 and also went on to make more than 100 films, many of them with Lillian. Dorothy’s early work in film highlighted her keen sense of humor, bringing her acclaim as a star of comedy. At the end of the silent era, she turned her attention to the stage, where success in “Young Love” brought her accolades with New York audiences, on the road and subsequently in London. In 1939 Dorothy and Lillian each played Vinnie Day, wife of Clarence Day Sr., in two extensive American road company productions of “Life with Father.” Dorothy returned to film and television in the 1950s.

Upon her death in 1968, Dorothy Gish left the bulk of her estate to the arts. Lillian Gish died in 1993 and also left the bulk of her estate to the arts, including a trust for the formation of the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.


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