UNITED SKATES. Following several skating families from across the U.S., HBO's documentary United Skates looks at the role of roller rinks in black communities, framing them not only as fun places to hang out but as spaces that foster growth and a sense of belonging. United Skates is a compelling snapshot of a subculture that has struggled with racism but whose legacy reverberates in many facets of the mainstream, even as the rinks continue to disappear.
Once highly attended venues where hip hop and rap artists like Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa, NWA and Eazy-E got their start, in the last few decades, roller rinks have been closing rapidly all over the country. Via interviews with skating families and prominent musicians whose careers began in the scene, United Skates outlines how, like many black-majority spaces, roller rinks are seen as threatening to the white community. Officially desegregated in the 1960s, many white-owned rinks pursued de facto segregation with euphemistic terms like "Soul Night," "Urban Night" or "Adult Night" that aimed to squeeze black skaters out of regular skate sessions. One young interviewee and his family drive miles to access one of the few rinks left in Los Angeles, only to be sent away for breaking arbitrary rules about everything from dress codes (no saggy pants) to wheel size (excluding jam skaters who use smaller wheels for speed and agility). In one nerve-wracking scene, the camera crew captures police and security guards hassling young skaters in the parking lot of a rink. Speaking directly to the camera, a security guard (who, honest to God, looks like a parody of Lt. Dangle from Reno 911) refers to them collectively as people from "Section 8." Its cringey, to say the least. We learn that designated "black" sessions are often heavily policed, making yet another black-centered activity seem criminal. If all that wasn't enough to keep black skaters away (which, as we learn in the film, isn't), the gentrification of neighborhoods that house roller rinks resulted in re-zoning laws and hikes in land and business taxes that make sustaining those businesses close to impossible. The loss of a sense of community, culture and identity is an overarching theme of the film, one that hits hardest when young skaters explain how that loss directly affects them. Many of the kids and teens in the film find themselves at loose ends when the rinks close. One teenager with ADHD and emotional development issues whose commentary appears throughout the documentary even gets in trouble with the law.
United Skates is a crash course in the history of a remarkable subculture. Sepia-tone photographs dating back to what looks like the 1920s show young black skaters at the rink. My only bone to pick with the documentary is that the inclusion of this footage was so brief and that, in comparison with focus on roller rinks in the early '80s and '90s, this early rink history needed more context and explanation. The timeline felt a bit scattered and there was a narrative gap somewhere between the 1950s and the 1980s. Perhaps this is because that era was relatively unremarkable? That being said, United Skates makes its point clearly enough and the film's release, in general, is timely, weighing in on discussion about the racism and white privilege still at work in our national culture and politic.
If not for its important political commentary, consider watching United Skates for the showcase of immense talent and athleticism of the roller skating. Even for those who have never rolled on eight wheels themselves — or perhaps, especially for those folks — the speed, grace, synchronicity and ease with which these skaters move on the rink is mind-blowing. In a scene that will make you want to head to the nearest rink immediately, the film admits us to a "skate party," where skaters from around the country show off the moves they have been perfecting all year. It's a big to-do. The comparison of regional skate styles was one of the most exciting aspects of the film. Each skater or group of skaters' routines reflect very different histories of dancing and skating. Skaters from St. Louis, for instance, perform a kind of "ballroom" partner dance. Texas does a "slow walk" in which a group of skaters exact a routine simultaneously en masse at a smooth, controlled pace. Kentucky skaters "throw" partners around the floor, like a 1950s swing dance. These are just a few examples of the skating/cultural nuances that only people deeply involved in the scene could explain. I'm happy to be let in on the secret.
Entertaining and educational, United Skates tells a story about resilience and tradition. And despite the minutes-long slideshow of shuttered roller rink facades from all over the U.S., the documentary ends on a bit of an upbeat note, highlighting efforts among younger skaters now to rebuild the skate community and the venues that house them.
I am hopefully awaiting the roller rink resurgence and crossing my fingers that this documentary not only preserves a waning subculture, but sparks the will to restore it. TV14. 89M. HBO.
— Cassie Curatolo
See showtimes at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
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— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill