HBO film delves into roller-skating culture
NEW YORK — First-time documentary filmmakers Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler once dragged their cameras through New York’s Central Park to capture the last people still passionate about roller skating. Ice rinks across the country were gone. The activity seemed dead.
“We were shooting a story about what we thought was the end of the skating era with what we thought were the last men standing,” Winkler said. “We thought, ‘Who’s still rollerblading?'”
They may have come for a funeral, but they found something quite different. Two young African American skaters approached them and asked what they were doing. “They said, ‘Skating is not dead. It just went underground,'” Winkler recalls.
Winkler and Brown decided to go find him. Five years and 500 hours of footage later, they emerged with the HBO film “United Skates,” a fascinating look at the rich African-American roller-skating subculture, which is under threat.
“We hope our viewers will learn something they didn’t know, fall in love with something they didn’t know, and maybe have to care enough to protect it,” Winkler said.
The documentary explores how roller rinks were the sites of some of the earliest fights of the civil rights era and how they later became launching pads for hip-hop artists.
It shows how unofficial segregation continues, with so-called “adult nights” that feature metal detectors and masses of police, something not used when white people come to skate. It also shows how rinks are being closed as communities seek more revenue by rezoning for retail use.
“There’s a bigger story to tell and we can use the joyous beauty of roller skating as sugar to spoon feed some of those bigger issues. That’s when we started to peel the layers,” Winkler said.
That day in Central Park changed the trajectory – and the lives – of the filmmakers. The young skaters we met invited the women to come and see what had happened to skating. And so they took an overnight bus to Richmond, Virginia.
The duo – one Australian, one American – approached a skating rink at midnight. It was far from fun: there was a line down the block, the music was pounding, the skaters were dressed to kill, and everyone seemed to know each other.
“We entered this world,” Winkler said.
They soon learned that each city has different styles of skate dancing – Baltimore has “Snapping”, Atlanta has the “Jacknife” and in Texas you do the “Slow Walk” – and how such a close camaraderie between skaters is forged that they will fly across the land to gather.
Embraced by the community, Winkler and Brown never paid for a hotel room or car rental or a meal while criss-crossing the country interviewing a hundred skaters. The skaters themselves opened their houses and drove them.
The documentary features interviews with hip-hop legends like Salt-N-Pepa, Coolio and Naughty by Nature’s Vin Rock. John Legend serves as executive producer and the film received the Documentary Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The cameras also follow Reggie Brown, skating ambassador and community advocate. In a phone interview, he explained that roller skating teaches patience, athleticism, purpose, positive reinforcement, determination — and getting back up after a fall.
“Roller skating is a little more than spinning around on two wheels,” he said. “It’s fun. It’s enjoyable exercise. It’s healthy and there are a lot of benefits. But the socio-economic benefits of roller skating are higher than anyone can imagine.”
“Tell me about another affordable activity for the whole family that you can go to on a Saturday and take five of your family and you can skate for four hours and everyone can have fun and exercise.”
“United Skates” is a documentary made in part by the subjects themselves. Winkler and Brown, who started the project as rookie skaters, enlisted skaters to shoot scenes and used their skills on the rink to help capture footage.
“They were pushing us from behind at these high speeds and we were just focusing on the camera and praying,” Winkler said. “It was really a collaboration. They like to say that we taught them to shoot and they taught us to skate.”
Cameras capture the heartbreaking decision of a suburban Chicago family rink to close – among thousands that have done so over the past decade – and the filmmakers are quick to hope their film can stem the wave of closures.
“Obviously if we could save an ice rink, if we could get one reopened because of this movie, that’s a huge step forward for this community and hopefully that will have a ripple effect,” he said. Brown said.