Review: United Skates Shines a Light on a Largely Unknown Cultural Arena

The documentary brings to the foreground a fascinating and, moreover, beautiful culture lurking in the background of other stories.

United Skates
Photo: HBO

Of the revelations the uninitiated will find in Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown’s documentary United Skates, the most surprising may be the centrality of roller rinks to the emergence of hip-hop as a cultural force in the late 1980s. Rap luminaries like Vin Rock (of Naughty by Nature), Salt-N-Pepa, and Coolio are on hand to reminisce about the importance of roller skating in their far-flung hometowns. Hailing from communities with little access to large venues and performing in a genre without mainstream acceptance, many early rappers got their start playing to crowded rinks. That the storied but rarely discussed institution of roller skating intersects at crucial points with more familiar moments in black history is something the film points to repeatedly, bringing to the foreground this fascinating and, moreover, beautiful culture lurking in the background of other stories.

Roller skating had its heyday during the disco era, falling out of fashion alongside polyester and sequins, taking another big hit with the ascension of the outdoor-oriented (and not terribly dance-friendly) inline skating. Since the early 1980s, as United Skates recounts, the once-bountiful count of roller rinks in the U.S. has been in rapid decline. At the same time, across the country—as the film’s punning title suggests—so-called “adult nights” catering to local black communities have helped the country’s remaining rinks to stay afloat.

While early in the documentary they draw heavily from the testimonies of celebrity interviewees, Winkler and Brown center their story about a culture in crisis around three lifelong skaters: Phelicia, a single mother from Los Angeles; Buddy Love, the owner of Rich City Skate in the Chicago suburb of Richton Park; and Reggie, a North Carolina man living hours from the closest rink with an adult night. Reggie explains the history of the “adult night” epithet, a settled-upon code that emerged after desegregation, when rinks were required to admit black patrons but still preferred to encourage them to come on certain evenings. Labels such as “soul night” and “urban night,” it seems, were a bit too on the nose.

But by and large, this space of de facto segregation has been transformed into a safe public space for black people to gather and engage in community activity—even if, at many rinks, security is coincidentally stepped up on “adult night.” While the film focuses on the blackness of the adult skating phenomenon, it doesn’t present an image of a monolithic “black community.” As one should expect, there are distinct regional variations in the culture and practice of roller skating, which Winkler and Brown capture through a combination of interviews with lifelong skaters and colorful, captivating footage of their balletic moves.

United Skates puts the dynamics of a shared tradition with regional specificities on display during the film’s trip to Independence Roll, a national skating event hosted in Chicago by Buddy Love’s rink. At IR, the documentary captures the styles of skate from across black America with an energetic rhythm and grace that matches the dancelike movements of the skaters. Many of the styles accord, in charming fashion, with their place of origin. Witness: the Texas Slow Walk, which looks rather like a line dance; the Kentucky Throws, the St. Louis Ballroom, and Baltimore Snapping, all of which are partnered skates evocative of Southern manners; the Philly Fast Backwards, the Detroit Open House, and the Chicago Underground, which evoke city life with their gritty, fast-paced, daredevil maneuvers.

Such skating sequences are the most aesthetically engaging—and even inspiring—portions of the film, and one often wishes they went on for longer. But leaving us wanting more has a purpose, because United Skates isn’t just about exposing viewers to a vibrant but largely unknown cultural arena. It’s also about the threat posed to an utterly unique pocket of life by gentrification and greed, as rinks are forced out of their buildings in favor of big box stores. The risk of Rich City’s closure may represent a legitimate danger for urban youth otherwise left without a safe space off of the streets. The seemingly arbitrary demolishment of this subculture is a tragedy, as is the lack of agency that culture’s adherents appear to have over its fate. But there’s yet another tragedy implicit here: that our cities are in such poor state that lives may very well depend on whether a roller rink on Chicago’s South Side fails.

Score: 
 Director: Dyana Winkler, Tina Brown  Screenwriter: Dyana Winkler  Distributor: HBO  Running Time: 89 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2018

Pat Brown

Pat Brown teaches Film Studies and American Studies in Germany. His writing on film and media has appeared in various scholarly journals and critical anthologies.

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