United Skates is a documentary exploring the subculture of roller skating rinks. That might sound quaint to Winnipeggers whose experience with roller rinks begins and ends with childhood birthday parties at Wheelies. But co-directors Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler’s film positions roller rinks as a stark illustration of systemic racism and unfettered capitalism.
While the middle-class, suburban model of the roller rink has long been declining, skating culture has never stopped thriving in poor, predominantly Black communities in America.
But despite their continued success, rinks are being forced into closure by landlords and city councils who subscribe to the idea “roller rinks aren’t profitable.” Why waste so much square footage on a rink when this space would earn more as condos or a Home Depot?
Brown and Winkler follow three individuals (in Los Angeles, Chicago and North Carolina, respectively) as entry points into regional skating cultures. These vibrant communities range from young children to folks well into their 80s.
Many of those older skaters were civil rights activists who fought to desegregate rinks in the ’50s and ’60s. When segregation was abolished, white rink owners invented arbitrary rules (banning certain types of dancing, genres of music or styles of clothing) to keep Black patrons out. Hence, white and Black rink cultures remained de facto segregated, taking two different
United Skates shows the damage done when community gathering spaces are swept away in the name of profit.
Phelicia, the film’s LA ambassador, is a single mom. While she’s living paycheque to paycheque, skating is an affordable weekly event for her and her five kids. It’s a positive form of community engagement in a neighbourhood where the allure of gangs is ever-present, particularly for her vulnerable teenage son who struggles with mental illness.
When their local rink is shuttered (and a white-owned rink in another neighborhood pushes them out), he turns to crime. When Phelicia learns he’s broken into a home, she turns him into police herself. He serves
The historical impact of rinks as Black community hubs goes beyond positive outlets for kids. Through interviews with musicians like Salt-N-Pepa and Coolio, the film explores how roller rinks served as venues for rappers and R&B artists like N.W.A. and Queen Latifah in the early
days of hip hop.
Roller rink DJing is an art of its own, with styles varying from city to city, catering to local skate and dance moves. Chicago DJs spin “JB Style” (named for its heavy sampling of James Brown), for instance.
United Skates stands in the great documentary tradition of films like Hoop Dreams or last year’s Unarmed Verses, which used seemingly-innocuous topics like basketball or after-school programs to show how income inequality and anti-Black racism permeate every aspect of our society.
While Brown and Winkler are often more didactic than Hoop Dreams’ Steve James or Unarmed Verses’ Charles Officer, they still use a light enough touch to ensure their film never feels heavy-handed. It remains, ultimately, a celebration of skate culture. It’s not eulogizing a culture under threat, but propping it up in a time of struggle.
United Skates plays as part of the 10th annual Gimme Some Truth documentary festival, which runs Oct. 31 to Nov. 4 at Cinematheque.
Published in Volume 73, Number 7 of The Uniter (October 25, 2018)