Ava DuVernay
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November 03, 2017 01:27 PM

Ava DuVernay rejects the Hollywood status quo — and as a result, she has broken major barriers for women in the industry.

Last year, the Oscar-nominated director was tapped to helm Disney’s A Wrinkle In Time, making her the first black female director to lead a $100 million film.

“Disney allowed me to open my imagination,” DuVernay, 45, says of the upcoming adaptation of the popular children’s sci-fi novel that is starring Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling. “They believed in my vision in a way that was so nourishing to me as a filmmaker. It’s very rare to come across that.”

That support is scarce for many of her directing peers. DuVernay, named one of PEOPLE’s 25 Women Changing the World in this week’s issue for her efforts to increase diversity in entertainment, feels strongly that the gender and racial disparity in Hollywood isn’t accidental.

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“I would say that it’s quite intentional,” says DuVernay of Hollywood hiring practices. “You’re basically saying, ‘This is what we want, and this is what we’re going to have.’ There’s no way you can tell me that there hasn’t been effort put into exclusion.”

DuVernay, who made the transition from publicist to indie filmmaker, created the organization Array Now in 2010, which helps find and fund promising films by minority directors. “I wanted to make films about the interiority of women of color, people of color, and I knew there wasn’t a large market out in the studio system for those kinds of films, so I decided to just distribute on my own. It started as a function of survival.”

To date, Array Now has released 18 works by independent filmmakers. “I just finance it from my directing money and from donations from those who believe in inclusive film,” she says.

DuVernay says it’s about much more than just entertaining audiences. “What you see you become, what you see increases your knowledge about the world and your place in it,” says the filmmaker, who makes it a point to show films in economically depressed communities that lack movie theaters. “It’s imperative to equalize the playing field.”

On her hit OWN Network drama Queen Sugar, now in its second season, DuVernay has employed all female directors. “It’s not hard, it just takes intention,” she says. “I’ve heard some people say it’s reverse discrimination, but I can barely fix my mouth to answer a statement as ignorant as that. We’re trying to correct, lead by example. It’s an act of resistance.”

For more on the 25 Women Changing the World, pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands now.

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