by Donnia Harrington
Community is what brings us together. No matter where you come from, there’s nothing more powerful than the bond of culture. Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler’s United Skates, which screened at this year’s outstanding Urbanworld Festival, explores a tight-knit community on the brink of extinction: the underground roller skaters of New York, North Carolina, California, Illinois, Georgia and more. A community created from segregation, “Black nights” or “Adult Nights” at skating rinks became a safe place for African-Americans to bond and share their love of being in the rink.
What’s powerful about United Skates isn’t just the fact that filmmakers Brown and Winkler shine a light on a subculture mostly unknown to the mainstream, but how much this film feels, breathes and lives as a community project. From interviews with big stars Salt-N-Pepa and Coolio to local residents across the country who frequent the closest roller rinks to them, this film serves as an introduction, a history lesson and an appreciation of creativity.
The origins of the skating community date back to segregation, and we hear from elder skaters about their experiences peacefully protesting for the right to skate. Even today as the community is considered underground, they still suffer from segregation in the form of skating rink owners restricting certain shoes, banning earphones and hip-hop music, all elements unique to this particular community, a subtle but obvious attempt to strip them of the culture that they’ve lived by for decades.
Although United Skates is a lesson in the history of the rink, the central story is about the skaters. We follow Phelicia in Los Angeles, a mother of five who she’s taught to live and appreciate skate. It’s heart-warming watching how much skating means to the children, they’ve found an outlet that that love and they strive to perfect it. In North Carolina, Reggie and his wife met through their passion for skating, a passion that they hope to pass down to their child. In Chicago, Buddy Love owns the last skating rink in the city and we learn the struggles of trying to balance an affordable price for the community and owning a business.
Their stories intertwine with the dozens of people interviewed throughout the film, the overall message on how important it is to keep skate alive. When asked if they considered skate an art form, Brown and Winkler shared enthusiastic agreement that yes, it is. “The skaters feel like this could be an Olympic sport… they make it look easy but it’s very difficult.” This shows in the film, the amount of physicality that goes into creating moves and dance styles is admirable and it’s a form of expression that’s special to this community. Not only is skate an outlet, it’s a sport that requires levels of dedication and practice that are often seen in events as big as the Olympics.
What’s fascinating is that every city has their own style and approach to skate, no one city is the same. They bring their own individuality to the rink and it blends into a unique mesh of creativity. Skate is an art form and United Skates celebrates the beauty and vibrancy of this community as they continue to find ways to keep their passion alive.
At just 89 minutes, you find yourself wanting more. Brown and Winkler spent five years filming around the country and there was over 500 hours of footage to choose from. Stories were cut and although “United Skates” is short, the message is clear. Skate has a complex and layered history, it’s ingrained in segregation, it’s boosted hip-hop to the mainstream, it’s a safe place for minorities. Roller skating for the people in this community has become a metaphor for what’s happening in America. Gentrification pushing the rinks to close down, losing historical value in the places they call their second homes. There are so many layers to the film, when one story is introduced another one begins and this only shows how important it is to keep skate alive for the next generations to come.
During one of the skate nights, a DJ says, “They can take the building but they can’t take the spirit.” The spirit of skate will always live on, it has to in order to preserve history. United Skates gives the subjects of the film the power to preserve history by teaching us what skate means to them and how powerful, inspiring and incredible a community of creatives can be.
Check out the trailer for United Skates
Donnia Harrington has been writing critically about film for over three years. Her work has been published on FlickSided, Audiences Everywhere and ComicBook Debate. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys foreign cinema, female-centered video games, Korean music and Scandinavian crime novels.