“Would you believe that Lillian Gish starred in two of the most important films that impacted me while I was studying film at NYU?” film artist, Tisch alumnus and professor of directing strategies Spike Lee said.
On Oct. 30 at the Museum of Modern Art, the esteemed Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize celebrated its 20th anniversary by bestowing Lee with the award. In doing this, the foundation not only affirmed Lee’s place among the icons of film, but also established a definitive appreciation of his long-time educational work at NYU.
Known for his revolutionary film approach to tough issues like racism, Lee is a revered name in cinema. What many people overlook, however, is that Lee is the artistic director of the graduate film program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He has been a professor for the past 15 years, and has never missed a class in all his years of teaching, Tisch dean Mary Schmidt Campbell said.
“I can tell you that every single one of the 15 students who interned on Spike’s epic documentary ‘When the Levees Broke’ can describe the lessons they learned from his exact and disciplined approach on a movie set,” Campbell said. “[Amid] the wreckage of Katrina, he not only made a film, but he insisted that each and every one of his student interns make a real contribution to a documentary that has become classic.”
Since his mother and his grandmother were both formerly teachers, Lee has taken inspiration from them to spur his own teaching and push for the improving arts curriculum in schools.
“It’s getting harder and harder … to keep things going with the world we live in and the assault on the arts,” Lee said. “So we [need] to pay attention to the arts, and do what we can to keep it going because that’s what keeps us humane, the arts.”
This influence that Lee possesses translates seamlessly to his students, who have gone on to paths of high achievement. One of his former students is award-winning television director Seith Mann, most commonly known for his direction of shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Californication” and “Elementary.”
“[Lee] was a huge influence especially in South Africa, where I’m from, because we never saw … that many movies with black people in them,” said Tiisetso Dladla, who graduated from the the Tisch graduate film department in 2013.
Even years after an extensive career, Lee continues to stay relevant and insightful on screen and in the classroom.
“Every year … he influences American culture [and] world culture … He’s one of the best professors I’ve had because he doesn’t just teach you film, but he teaches you how to be a filmmaker. He teaches you the next level,” Dladla said. “I’m so glad he was my professor [and] my mentor.”
David Bologna is a staff writer. Email him at [email protected]