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A window onto a vibrant American subculture that is currently endangered (as so many other things are) by real-estate profiteers, Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown’s United Skates introduces African Americans who for generations have found a refuge from the world in the roller rink. The subject’s connection to early hip-hop culture may help draw attention at fests, but the doc’s heart is with ordinary people who have no show-business ambitions. It should open eyes on video, though members of this scene would probably delight in a tour of one-off showings in the urban and rural rinks that remain in operation.
Launching with interviews featuring Salt-N-Pepa, Coolio, and journalist Maulud Sadiq Allah, the film at first seems to be a celebration of the skating rink’s importance in the birth of hip-hop. Thanks to their size, rinks were well-suited to shoestring-budgeted concert production, and were the first large venues many rap artists played. It was a “kinda intimidating,” put-up or shut-up environment, Salt-N-Pepa recall, since musicians were sometimes interrupting what skaters came to do. On the other hand, hip-hop producers could find it a fertile place to develop their skills: The first DJ at LA’s Skateland, we learn, was a then-unknown Dr. Dre. (Cue an exciting Straight Outta Compton clip recreating an N.W.A. concert there.)
But this opening sequence is a red herring for a movie that mostly cares about the skaters themselves. We meet Phelicia Wright, a Los Angeles mother of five whose family lives to skate. Through her and other locals, we hear of LA’s dueling rinks: The aforementioned Skateland in Compton, which was once the turf of the Bloods, and Mid-City’s World on Wheels, home to the Crips. So important was skating to these communities that, when Skateland closed, gang leaders declared World on Wheels neutral territory, so everyone could skate in peace. (“It was outside in the parking lot that you got popped,” Coolio reports.)
Then WoW closes in 2013, leaving Phelicia and her kids more bereft than you might expect. It’s killed because of re-zoning that makes the real estate more valuable; despite community activism, the rink sits empty for four years while developers wait to milk it for profits. In that time, Phelicia has to drive her children out to Glendale to the nearest rink she can find, one catering to a white clientele. “The music is going to suck real bad,” she warns her kids, but that’s not the half of it: The family is politely but firmly kicked out, thanks to rules that interviewees believe are designed to keep black skaters away.
Bringing in a North Carolina enthusiast named Reggie Brown, the film discusses a decades-old phenomenon in which euphemisms like “Soul Night” were used to identify dates when blacks were welcome in rinks. “Adult Night” was the moniker that endured, begging a question the film doesn’t ask: Is grown-up skating something that only caught on among African Americans?
The question is important as we watch Reggie trekking all over his region, trying to convince a rink owner somewhere to let him host an Adult Night. Is this a scenario in which black skaters are actually campaigning for segregation?
That’s a touchy topic the film has no interest in exploring. But it’s easy to understand why skaters would plead for one night a week when rinks would toss out their scattershot mix of Top 40, metal, and what-have-you music to let a DJ with taste choose songs worth moving to. In a Chicago rink, Buddy Love runs one of the nation’s few black-owned rinks; he helps explain how different part of the country have evolved to value different kinds of music and different kinds of moves on the floor. (Chicagoans, for instance, skate to remixes built around James Brown samples.)
In a thrilling but far too-short montage, Winkler and Brown zip through examples of regional styles like Texas Slow-walk and Ohio Stride. The 88-minute film could have added 10 minutes to showcase these daredevil stunts and graceful group moves, and still left viewers wanting more. It’s more thorough in its talk of how rinks became endangered (a motion-graphics map of hundreds of rinks shows them dying off as years pass) and what devotees are doing to keep them alive.
Happily, there are slivers of good news to report as the movie closes. But even the sad scenes demonstrate the community bonds built in these wood-floored, rental-shoe-smelling skate centers. It’s enough to make you run home to a search engine, looking for a still-operating rink near you. It may have been decades since you put on skates. But maybe there are people on the floor there who can show you how it’s done.
Production company: Sweet Ninja Films
Directors-Producers: Dyana Winkler, Tina Brown
Writer: Dyana Winkler
Executive producers: Jeffrey Soros, Simon Horsman, Julie Parker Benello, Jim Butterworth
Directors of photography: Matthew Peterson, Tina Brown, Dyana Winkler
Editor: Katharine Garrison
Composers: Jongnic Bontemps, Jim Winkler
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Sales: Kevin Iwashina, Endeavor Content
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