After going back to school at the age of 44 to take her craft to new heights, Michelle Payne graduated and hit the ground running by creating the Las Vegas Black Film Festival. More widely known as just Ms. Michelle, the Founder, Executive Director, and Chief Visionary Officer for the LVBFF sat down in the Greenspun Hall of Urban Affairs at her alma mater to talk about being a black female in the film industry, Stacey Dash, #OscarsSoWhite, and how this year’s upcoming festival will be better than the last.
Who/what brought you into the world of film? Were you influenced by a person or any life situations?
My love for the arts. I’ve been writing since I was a child and very creative since I was a kid. And so, the world of film was inevitable for my path.
I was born for this. My dad used to build platforms in the front yard under our garage and kids in the neighborhood used to be a part of my plays. I never went to school to write plays. I did go to school to get my degree in cinema production.
Were you influenced by anyone along the way?
Along the way I did [have support] but as a child, I can’t recall who the influence was because there’s no one in my family- none of my close friends , none of my relatives are in the entertainment industry. It could be someone on TV, I can’t recall, so I don’t know… who to blame. (Laughs)
I started doing this very young; I couldn’t do just show and tell, it had to be a whole production for me. As far as I can remember, since I was a child this is something that I loved to do. Express myself through the arts and performances.
I have to pay homage to a man- he passed away last year but his name is Lanyard Williams. He was my mentor. He was a thespian of the arts; he’s worked with all the greats, and he just took me under his wing and taught me all of the technical things that you can’t wing. He taught me all these things and hence was birthed my opportunities to travel and do tours nationally, because he took me under his wing. So I have to do that [pay homage]. He was very well known and very well-respected in this community and communities around the world. So, awesome man.
Before he passed, I ended up going back to school. I wanted to take my work to another level, from the stage to the big screen. I realized that I didn’t know certain things like how to edit or use a camera. I could write, produce direct, but I needed to know those particular things-
You were already a triple threat, girl!
But I needed to know those things, then I could do them myself, which is exactly what I did, which is why I am a triple threat! (Laughs)
What exactly did you find missing in the Las Vegas culture and when did you notice it? What were some of your primary actions once you noticed it?
I was born and raised in Las Vegas, I’m a native here. And so I’ve always noticed the lack of color in entertainment, on the Strip, and the shows. There’s always been a lack of culture in this city. Always has been. Which is why the plays and theatre that I’ve done since 1998 have done so well here because of the missing piece in cultural diversity of entertainment in this city.
I don’t believe in segregation because I don’t see color. I think colors in the rainbow, make the world go ‘round. But as a black woman, I can’t help but notice- that you know sometimes I feel like I’m in the sixties. It’s like, “Really?” So I can’t ignore it but I don’t have to succumb to it. I don’t have to be involved with the foolishness.
What do you think it takes to be the First Lady of Gospel Theatre as you have been nationally recognized? What does the name refer to?
That title was given to me by Dr. Bobby Jones. I received an opportunity to have one of my best-selling stage plays-Is That Man Your Husband? – I got national distribution with it and I was the first black female playwright to have that happen. There was an award show that was taking place at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, I got nominated and I had no idea it even existed. And I won an Agape Eagle Award for Producer of Black Theatre. Among the nominees I was the only female there. I was the only woman sitting at the table. When Dr. Bobby Jones presented me with the award, they said, “Pan that big jumbo camera over the table.” He said, “Something’s wrong with this picture. There’s only one woman there in this genre of work,” I was the first lady of gospel theatre because I was the first lady to so boldly step into this part of the industry that was dominated by men. I got mine distributed. My first play. And it went worldwide.
–What type of growth have you seen in the Las Vegas Black Film Festival since its inception? What are your hopes for this year?
I want this to be an even better year than last year. We want to grow and get better with time. I want this festival to speak volumes about what you can do if you don’t quit. I want it to be a motivating, encouraging manifestation of someone’s dream. That’s the message I want to get across more than the messages in the films that have come in, more than the messages of the things that the wonderful speakers can say. I want the message of the foundation of this festival to get across to people. And that is: if you have a dream that looks impossible, if it looks like one of those trees or mountains that you can’t climb, you can, you can.
–Do you think the diversity issue is getting better or is the film industry taking some steps back?
I think it’s getting better, here’s why: Years ago, Hollywood, the Oscars, they had a say on everything. So there was no chance for someone like me to have a film that could be seen in theaters. But now, the industry has taken a very broad turn. Because independent film makers are taking over. Hollywood is now coming to our little festivals to say, “Watcha’ got? We need something.” There are some people who are making films with little cameras and iPhones even. The digital world has definitely taken over. So it’s taken a turn for the better.
– What is your opinion on modern movies with African-American leads taking on storylines surrounding times of slavery, civil rights, and the overall oppression of black people?
I’m tired. Like, really, another one? The message is relevant I just think it should be told with “now” stories. Tell the story about what happens now. It can just be so depressing and I hate seeing so much money being spent when we already know the story. And I hate that we have to make movies like that to win an Oscar.
–As a black female in the film industry what is your opinion on the issue of #OscarsSoWhite and the lack of strong black leading roles in movies?
There is certainly a lack. You got Taraji, you got Viola Davis, you got Gabrielle Union, Kerry Washington, and Regina King. They all have lead roles in shows that are on TV. But think about all the other talented black women in Hollywood who were all fighting over the role Kerry Washington ended up getting. They were all fighting over the role that Viola Davis ended up getting. But think about all the other things on TV and who is in the lead roles. Platforms like the Las Vegas Black Film Festival are important so that black talent can be seen.
–Recently, actress Stacey Dash’s scrutiny on black-dominated events like award shows and other media outlets have garnered a lot of attention and has posed questions like: Do black people need to stop segregating themselves? Is it necessary?
I think she used words that don’t even make sense. Segregation is not even possible right now. …Segregation. I think that’s a monstrous word to use. [The Oscars] whole panel is a bunch of old white men. Of course they’re not going to pick Straight Outta Compton as a winning movie. It’s not their cup of tea. That’s why on the LVBFF team, it’s not just me on the panel. Because I’m only going to choose what I like. That means there’s not going to be a bunch of diversity. #Oscarssowhite is because the panel is so white. If they fix the panel, then they’ll fix the problem. I think it’s good that [people from different] cultures come together and celebrate themselves.
– Does your faith or religion play into your career? If yes, how so?
Absolutely. I believe that, without faith it is impossible to please God, but with faith and through faith I can do all things, anything and everything that I set my mind to do. My exchange is faith. What I believe according to my faith is that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me and without faith it is impossible. I live by faith, walk by faith, it is all about faith.
It’s not about me nor has it ever been. It’s always been about creating a platform to celebrate people and the diverse talents and gifts we have.
– What advice would you give to young people who are interested in being a part of filmmaking, acting, screenwriting, or directing? Anything specific to blacks or minorities?
They definitely need to come to the Las Vegas Black Film Festival! (Laughs) and other festivals that celebrate black artists. There’s a plethora of people there that have finances, who have connections, who can help, who want to help and are looking for them. But if you don’t put yourself in a position to be found….you got to put yourself around people that are doing what you want to do. And that’s not a secret.