US film director Spike Lee has been awarded the 20th annual Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize "for his brilliance and unwavering courage in using film to challenge conventional thinking".
The filmmaker behind hits such as Malcolm X and Inside Man will receive $300,000 (£186,660).
"I hadn't even heard of it," Lee said, of the prize. "It was a phone call that came completely out of the blue."
"It was one of the best phone calls I've ever had," the 56-year-old added.
The late actress Lillian Gish, who died in 1993, stipulated that the prize be given every year to "a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind's enjoyment and understanding of life".
"It is my desire... to give the recipients of the prize the recognition they deserve, to bring attention to their contributions to society and encourage others to follow in their path," wrote Gish.
Previous recipients include architect Frank Gehry, Bob Dylan, Arthur Miller and Robert Redford.
Chosen from a shortlist of 30 people in the arts, Lee will be presented with the honour on 30 October at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
"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 The Birth of a Nation and The Night of the Hunter.
"Isn't it funny (sometimes) how life works?"
Lee made his debut with She's Gotta Have It in 1986, closely followed by the groundbreaking Do the Right Thing in 1989, which landed Lee with Oscar nominations for best original screenplay, best film and best director.
Last month, he raised $1.25m (£799,000) on the fan funding website Kickstarter towards his next movie project.
Tentatively titled The Newest Hottest Spike Lee Joint, the film is about "human beings who are addicted to blood".
Lee's latest film, a remake of the Korean film Oldboy, starring Josh Brolin and Samuel L Jackson, is due to be released in the UK in December.