Anyone who’s ever been to a roller-skating rink knows such establishments tend to bombard their patrons with rules — rules that dictate the kind of clothes, the kind of wheels, and the kind of moves permitted on the floor. For kids, it may be easy to assume that these restrictions are designed for everyone’s safety, but in many cases, they actually serve as a coded form of racial discrimination (in much the same way a Pennsylvania golf course kicked out five black women for playing too slowly earlier this week).
Now — and not a moment too soon, as once-thriving rinks go bust at a rate of three a month — first-time directors Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown’s deep-dive documentary “United Skates” reveals what these social-gathering places mean to African-Americans, past and present. Like such trendsetting classics as “Paris Is Burning” and “Rize,” this kaleidoscopically vibrant, essential-viewing survey plunges audiences into a dazzling underground scene, celebrating the endangered art form it finds there. (It’s not hard to imagine a spinoff reality series or competition show reigniting the craze — and saving a few rinks in the process.)
Whereas the original skating phenomenon seems to have peaked among white Americans around the time of “Xanadu,” what might have seemed like one of the country’s squarest fads — right up there with Pogo Ball and the Hula-Hoop — took on fresh life in black communities. Instead of politely rolling around a closed track like zombies, rebel skaters literally reinvented the wheel, coming up with flashy tricks and impressive flourishes to make the sport their own, treating it less like a pastime and more like a unique form of dance, with individual styles emerging in all the big cities.
Like other aspects of hip-hop culture, skating became a means of competitive personal expression, and as often happens when African-Americans adapt a mainstream (read: vanilla white-person) pursuit to their own ends, obstacles sprang up to remind them that the ruling class felt uncomfortable with their changes. Here, bolstered by daredevil, high-speed cinematography and a rousing soundtrack, “United Skates” shines a spotlight on the wild moves and blinged-out shoes that haven’t always been welcome on America’s floors.
By interviewing rink operators (like Skateland U.S.A. owner Craig Schweisinger, who hired Dr. Dre as his first DJ) and a handful of now-famous aficionados (Coolio, Alonzo Williams, Salt-N-Pepa), Winkler and Brown provide an invaluable “people’s history” of the role these arenas played in the rise of black music. Before rap went mainstream, skating rinks doubled as concert venues, hosting as many as 3,000 people at a time for live performances — as illustrated by archival footage of Queen Latifah and a scene from “Straight Outta Compton” set at Skateland.
Not all rinks were so supportive of their African-American patrons — a shameful fact that the film explores from myriad angles. We learn how such recreational spaces — like public pools and dance halls — reacted to the end of segregation: Some shut down, rather than integrate; others found new ways to discourage mingling, such as the introduction of “adult nights” (just one name for theme parties that catered to black crowds, with white families invited to skate the rest of the week).
Traveling practically the entire country, “United Skates” provides a dynamic survey of the diverse styles that have emerged in various cities — heightened by the fact that much of the footage is captured rolling right alongside the skaters, which puts audiences in the middle of the excitement as people do slides, splits (“nutcrackers”), and other elaborate moves. On the West Coast, the filmmakers expose rinks in L.A. and Las Vegas where arbitrarily enforced policies are clearly designed to keep undesirables off the floor; in North Carolina, they shadow a young black couple frustrated by the lack of a local skate culture who introduce an “adult night” at a rink struggling to stay in business (increasingly tricky, as in many cities, the expansive buildings are being rezoned or razed to make room for condos).
By focusing on individuals, the movie personalizes what often feels like the extinction of an art form, although there are encouraging signs in some places: Winkler and Brown worked long enough on the project that they observe both the closing of Los Angeles’ last rink and the grand reopening of World on Wheels in the same city four years later. More important, they demonstrate how skating provides a vital outlet for black kids (offering a constructive alternative to delinquency) and how rinks have served as the rare neutral ground where members of rival gangs agreed to socialize in peace. While some fads run their course, “United Skates” makes a compelling case for keeping this one alive.