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Ava DuVernay is talking about the old days — back when she first started making films. She’s saying how there weren’t many role models for Black women filmmakers, no safety net for the kinds of projects she’d become known for: Selma, 13th, When They See Us. And then she stops suddenly to marvel: “I’m talking like I made films 40 years ago — it was about 10 years ago when my first film was released! But there was no one to look at and go, ‘Oh, this woman, she’s made 10 films.'”
So in 2011, DuVernay created her own safety net. She founded the independent distribution company ARRAY (then known as AFFRM), which has since grown into a narrative collective offering content, production, programming, distribution, and nonprofit services like education, funding, and event spaces — all of which function as a kind of springboard for underheard voices in the film and television industry. “What it’s become is an incubator of disruptive ideas, which has been really beautiful,” DuVernay says. Recent successes include White Tiger, Lingua Franca, Queen Sugar, and They’ve Gotta Have Us.
“One of my film mentors is Haile Gerima,” says DuVernay, “who taught at Howard University and owned a small bookstore and cafe. He had a small editing room in the office above the bookstore, and that’s where he could always make his films. He called it his ‘liberated territory.’ With ARRAY, I have a liberated territory. If Hollywood kicks me out, decides it doesn’t want me there, I can always do my thing over here.”
But back when DuVernay started ARRAY, she already had some skills that made her confident she could tell a powerful story — and run a company, for that matter. Before becoming a filmmaker, she’d headed up her own publicity agency. “Being a publicist, particularly a publicist for independent films…really showed me that there’s lots of ways to amplify identities and experiences,” she notes. “And not to fall into what Hollywood says you should be doing.”
DuVernay says she only recently began to see herself as having a broad-scale influence on the culture. She talks about the emotional and imaginative power of film — how stories and images can impact viewers, inviting them to view the world differently. Ultimately, though, she believes films only influence culture insofar as viewers absorb and react to them.
“I don’t want to influence culture as much as I want people to engage with movies and stories in a way that instigates their thinking and perhaps helps them influence culture,” DuVernay says. “Anne Klein, the designer, had a great quote before she passed away. She said: ‘The clothes that I design won’t change the world, but the women who wear them will.’ Movies won’t change the world, but movies might make the person who watches them want to behave differently, learn something else, believe something different. That’s really been the goal.”
This story is part of Entrepreneur’s 100 Women of Influence issue. Find the rest of the list here.