Film and TV

HBO’s United Skates Takes a Thrilling Spin Through Roller-Skate Culture

In United Skates, the HBO documentary directed by Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown, the differences in skate style are surveyed on rinks in cities including Los Angeles and Chicago.
In United Skates, the HBO documentary directed by Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown, the differences in skate style are surveyed on rinks in cities including Los Angeles and Chicago. Christopher Vanderwal/Courtesy of HBO
Straight from the “Here’s Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” Department, Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown’s vital United Skates works as a celebration, lament and exciting overview of its subject: the roller rink as African-American community center. With rousing footage of skaters acing stylish tricks, the directors survey the past and present of roller-rink culture. They tell the story of the time the Bloods and Crips reached a peace accord on the neutral ground of one Los Angeles skate palace, and link New York, New Jersey and L.A. rinks to the rise of hip-hop. We glimpse a young Queen Latifah working a crowd, and Salt-N-Pepa note, in an interview segment, that an act performing for skaters had to be especially powerful, because the audience was already annoyed that the show was interrupting their skate time.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers survey life today on the rink scene, charting the differences in skate style between different cities. L.A.’s skaters favor fluid, gliding maneuvers, while anyone hoping to keep up in Chicago, where the DJs blast specialty James Brown remixes geared to what’s called the “J.B. skating,” must master moves like the big wheel, the low shuffle and the gaga. Skaters demonstrating techniques for the directors’ cameras make for continual highlights. And much of the present-day free-skate footage, shot at what have come to be known as “Adult Nights” at skating rinks, also proves invigorating, an invitation to relish the momentum, the joy and the peacocking pride of grown-up skaters. One adult night stalwart describes the rush of arriving at a good rink in terms similar to what dancers used to characterize entering the world’s most storied disco in the recent Studio 54 doc: first, the thump of the bass from outside, then the thump of your own heart and then the first look at the crowd on the floor, in continual thrilling motion, surging along on its own spirit of love. The filmmakers capture one new arrival’s wait, at a Chicago rink, for an opening in the crowd circling the skate floor. He’s beaming so wide his face might crack.

The skating rink and those African-American “Adult Nights” are endangered, of course. One rink owner says he still charges just $5 a head, so everyone can come, so that there’s a place anyone can go to — but then he notes, “It takes a lot of five dollars to pay off $96,000 in taxes.” Rising real estate prices have inspired landlords to give rinks the boot, and cities have proven eager to shutter these meeting spots in favor of big-box stores and condo developments. And then there’s the persistent heartbreaking truth that white folks — and law enforcement — get so easily scared by the prospect of black Americans gathering together and enjoying themselves. The filmmakers’ cameras continually catch police cruisers patrolling “Adult Nights,” and too many white rink owners prefer to keep black skaters away. We meet a married pair of North Carolina skaters who get their fix by visiting a local rink with their earbuds in, gliding their child’s stroller across the rink floor while listening to their own R&B rather than the business’ own charmless hard rock. More disturbing are scenes of black skaters being shooed away from a rink for using skates with small wheels, while white people with similar skates are left alone.

Often, a scene-survey doc that takes on so much — cultural history, present-day portraiture, regional distinctions, celebrity interviews, fly-on-the-wall reportage — can play as scattershot. That’s not so with United Skates, a film that’s smartly shaped, its every element revealing, its commitment always to forward motion. Round and round it flows — why not jump on in?
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Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl