“If this world don’t change its ways, we’ll all perish”. Roller-skating rinks in the U.S were once a booming hub of hip-hop and disco culture, a form of cathartic expression and freedom for many African-Americans. However, due to increased land taxes and gentrification forcing many rinks to close, they are now a rare find. Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown direct this perceptive, heart-driven documentary which unfurls the damage done to Black communities by rising real estate prices and uncovers how many contemporary rinks are hostile to Black skating culture. United Skates follows avid roller-rink skaters who are keen to keep the community and art of roller-skating alive. Offering an up-close and personal insight into a subculture forgotten by time.
Before mainstream venues wanted to book hip-hop acts, hip-hop artists found their success performing at roller-rink venues. With short appearances from Salt-N-Pepa and Coolio, the documentary offers an informative background to the close link roller-rinks have to Black music. Offering a space of expression and celebration that was often denied to the genre. Roller-skating is often an overlooked sport, something that might be long-forgotten to some viewers, but Winkler and Brown do a wonderful job of quickly and concisely filling the audience in on the wide and important history of roller-rink culture in the US.
One of the documentary’s focuses is the LA based mother of five, Phelicia. Her and her family regularly embark on trips to their local rink, Phelicia even stating how she believes the sport helps her children unwind and keep out of trouble. However, when her local rink closes they are forced to relocate to another rink, one that pines to white consumers more and only plays top 100 hits. Upon arriving at the rink Phelicia and her family are denied access because their wheels are “too small”. Overly harsh regulations like this are something common in white-focused rinks, and often make it difficult for black skaters to express their version of skating culture. For example: no headphones, no linking arms while skating, a ban on playing rap or hip-hop, no ‘sagging pants’, and a minimising of shoe customisation. For many skaters customising your rollerblades is a form of expression and a big part of the sport. Rules like this put a suffocating grip on cultural expression and present the problem marginalised cultures face of being constantly coded and monitored by external forces. United Skates highlights how even small acts like this, that would often go over many uninformed viewer’s heads as excluding, are made specifically to deter Black customers from the rinks. United Skates takes a subtle naturalistic approach to documentary-making, it’s a non-interfering piece that gives an uninterrupted voice to those often dismissed.
Winkler and Brown do a great job of putting people first, taking time to fully explain what roller-skating means to many individuals. Although sometimes the structure of the film felt a bit loose and lacking focus, its touches the surface of several culturally important topics that I wish had been explored more – such as the unquestioned system behind gentrification’s impact on low-income and marginalised communities. For many, roller-skating is more than just a sport. It’s a source of community and identity. With many individuals treating it as a chance to catch up with friends and come together as a community. There’s an engrossing segment where it showcases how different cities have different styles of skating. With lively and captivating camera-work swirling around the rink, you really get a sense of why people adore roller-skating so much. From the Texas slow-walk to the New York train, it’s a fantastic representation of the cultural importance this sport has on many people’s identity and sense of community.
All in all, a heart-breaking but energetic look at the underground world of roller-skating. Unearthing the destructive tendencies of rising real-estate prices and their crushing impacts on communities – it’s a documentary that places the marginalised individual first and tells a story too often overlooked. United Skates highlights the importance of community space and the preservation of culture, spirit, and history.
Written by Abi Aherne
All photos © United Skates