“I’m a provocateur,” filmmaker Stan Armstrong says, his soft voice bereft of self-satisfaction. It’s not a boast; it’s a statement of fact. On a computer in his condo near UNLV, he cues a clip from his upcoming film on interracial dating. In the scene, a black woman compares white men and black men, and expounds on the virtues of manscaping below the belt. Relax: Armstrong isn’t that kind of filmmaker. His purpose is illumination, not titillation, particularly given that Nevada was one of the last states to overturn miscegenation laws. “I’m interested in what impact that’s had on the interracial dating scene in Las Vegas.”
However, he is the kind of filmmaker who uses race to explore history and social interaction. The longtime local documentarian has produced a small but growing canon (“Black Confederates,” “Invisible Las Vegas” and “The Rancho High School Riots,” among others) that illuminates — and validates — the experiences of minorities. This spring, he plans to release “City Within a City,” chronicling the local history of the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians. “Many people in Las Vegas know nothing about the Paiutes except the store (near downtown) and the golf course (near Mount Charleston),” Armstrong says. “I want to tell their story.” His desire to tell those stories comes from a personal passion and a sense of mission. Armstrong’s experiences, combined with his growing love of history — particularly of all things Civil War — convinced him to study history and make a go at teaching about and producing film. “I like to explore topics in ways that haven’t been explored or that haven’t been examined,” says Armstrong, who has a communications degree from UNLV and has served as an instructor in African-American film and ethnic studies.
Like scores of Southern blacks seeking better lives out West, Armstrong’s parents came to Las Vegas, in 1955. His father told him painful stories about life in the Jim Crow South. “Dad used to say: It beats being in the cotton fields in Shreveport.” But Vegas was similarly unforgiving. His parents faced discrimination in the form of fruitless job searches and racist epithets. “It didn’t seem like the Jim Crow South was that much different from Jim Crow Las Vegas.”
[HEAR MORE: Former students recall race riots at Rancho High School on "KNPR’s State of Nevada."]
The ’60s and ’70s were intense times, but eye-opening for Armstrong. Assassinations. Racial strife. The fight for civil rights. The Vietnam War. “My mind was exploding,” he says. The 1960 desegregation of the Strip did little to soothe racial tensions in the actual neighborhoods of Las Vegas. “I grew up seeing police driving through black neighborhoods with shotguns hanging out of their cars. I was walking past Jerry’s Nugget when I was 12 and some white kids yelled, ‘Hey niggers.’ That leaves quite an impression on little kids.” Rancho High School was a powder keg. “Mexican kids from North Las Vegas, Mormon kids, black kids, Nellis kids, Native-American kids, West Las Vegas kids. North Las Vegas Police had a substation on campus. It felt like a prison. Desegregation led to a lot of tense situations and violence,” he says. His documentary, “The Rancho High School Riots,” recounts the episodes when that powder keg exploded, resulting in mass brawls, mace-spraying police marching on campus — and moving acts of unlikely heroism.
Armstrong plans to produce documentaries on blacks in Nazi Germany, the history of and the role of race in the Las Vegas nightclub industry, and the history of the local boxing scene. “These stories about race and Las Vegas are important. Not only should they be told — from Jim Crow Las Vegas to the Rancho High Race Riots — they should be understood,” says Armstrong. “History, a professor once told me, is like taking a bath in muddy water: You don’t know how you’re going to come out — whether you’ll be clean or not. We shouldn’t be scared of our history.”