For many, memories of skating rinks extend to gliding precariously around a well varnished floor to the sounds of the Top 40, whilst keeping one eye out for faster, bigger kids wanting to push you over. United Skates, the award-winning documentary from Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown, will happily shatter your preconceived notions of what it is to skate.
Through the two filmmakers, we’re introduced to the concept of Adults Nights, evenings – often turning into mornings – where friends, family and strangers in the African American community get together and show off their moves. And what moves they are! Brown and Winkler capture truly spectacular acts, from ‘simple’ backwards skating through to numerous backflips and landing in the splits. That last one is called the nutcracker for obvious reasons.
However, it’s not all about watching annoyingly talented skaters, United Skates also highlights several issues that perhaps you wouldn’t imagine would be connected to this fun-loving world. Whilst skating is popular in the African American community, others are turning away. The land on which these rinks lie is being re-zoned to make way for wholesale stores who can afford the huge upturn in rent. One talking head within the film predicts that three rinks close in America every month. And as each one closes, it takes with it a community. In one of the film’s more emotional scenes, we witness the last night of one such rink, its patrons spilling out at the end of the night mourning as if having lost a friend. For some, this was a place where they went with their parents and where they took their children. This is history. If you didn’t think a documentary about roller-skating could make cry, prepare to be pleasantly surprised.
From here, United Skates branches off into fascinating discussions which loop back to four wheels on shoes, such as the birth of hip hop, where Salt n Peppa, Dr Dre and Queen Latifah all made their names in rink-based gigs. The documentary’s more elderly subjects discuss their part in the civil rights movement and how their peaceful demonstrations simply to be allowed to skate with white people were met with fists thrown by surly, swastika carrying idiots. All of which sounds painfully relevant.
This brief dip into history may not satisfy those looking for more facts, but it does add weight to the stories of those we meet in the present day; highlighting why the skating rink is more than just a place to pass a pleasant afternoon. People like Felicia, who sees the rink as a way to keep her children off the streets. United Skates only touches upon why the rinks are being closed, but its insinuations are loud.
United Skates is an emotional film that will boil the blood. However, it is also a joyful celebration of a subculture many of us will not be familiar with.