At the end of the day, it’s about a place to call home; a place where no one is denied their right to be free. And to be free, is to skate.
To simply roller skate may seem undeserving of that boastful sentiment, but only to those who come by it simply. For the individuals, couples, and families profiled in Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler’s United Skates, that right is as real as the right to live and breathe air. To skate is to move, to create, to derive and nurture and build community. That energy shows through every frame of this film; part and parcel to a documentary that doesn’t just mean to document, but actually move its audience to action.
The notion of the roller rink is a staple of U.S. culture, but one that differs in image depending on how and where you grew up (or, quite frankly, whether you’re white or black). Top-40, kids’ birthday parties, an unshakeable disco vibe? Or DJ booths, hip-hop, dancers on custom wheels doing a JB skate? It could be true that roller rinks died with disco for some of us — but for a host of mostly black communities across the country, the rink is still home. And it’s rife with a power and love that the best political activists can only dream of.
The directorial vision for United Skates cultivates that nurturing, healing, strong atmosphere through empathetic subjects (Phelicia – mother of five; Reggie – struggling to find a rink to host an adult skate; Buddy – running a family business), but equally strong visuals. Brown and Winkler choose images that reverberate with pure joy; a vibrancy that at times seems to emanate from the camera itself. It sees and documents, then calls you in — asks you to see the details of homemade skates, tears welling up in mothers’ faces, sheer joy when someone hits an impossible move on the floor.
Much like skating itself, the joy is never delivered separately from the pain; doing the splits on wheels looks amazing, but there’s no doubt it hurts. You can hear it when plastic and metal (and probably bone) smack the floor, see it in a skaters’ eyes; that simultaneous love and the suffering for it. In one scene, Buddy lights up at the sight of his own Rich City Skate full of skaters from all across the country to unite a movement; in the very next he’s handed a mic and telling what feels like the whole world that this is his rink’s last skate.
That’s the harsh push-and-pull, a violent truth that Brown and Winkler capture so well. It’s not simply skating, but the cultural equivalent to a sacred act in a holy space, marred by those that don’t understand its importance. While putting to film some of the best skaters in the country, United Skates concurrently documents the rapid closing of spaces that offer culture, pride, and safety in the black community. A mixture of capitalism, bad politics, and casual racism actually make for very complicated skating, if there’s any place left to skate at all.
There’s a particular moment where police gather in a parking lot outside an L.A. rink, seemingly awaiting violence. There’s a terrible energy — what’s going to happen. Phelicia recalls in voiceover that it’s “out there” that bad things happen. In the parking lot. Get them inside, she says; give them not just a drive, but a purpose. Something to do. Somewhere to be. If we get them out of the parking lot and into the rink, there’s a long standing, effective safe space waiting to welcome people home; if only we’d stop taking those spaces away.
By Alex Landers
Alex is a child of the late eighties, a horror fan, and an unapologetic feminist. Playwright and visual artist, too. She writes film criticism at