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November 01, 2018

Denver Film Festival - United Skates

united skates.jpg

Dyana Winkler & Tina Brown - 2018

How is it that no one in Hollywood thought there was a movie to be made about African-American skaters? I have to admit that my own viewing has been of films of, or inspired by, Roller Derby. That includes not only recent entries like Whip It, but the 1971 documentary Derby, and Raquel Welch duking it out with Olympia Dukakis in Kansas City Bomber. Maybe the unasked for spate of roller disco movies at the end of the Seventies scared the studio suits.

The focus is on the sub-culture of African-American roller skating, its history, and struggles to continue in the face of closures of rinks, as well as indirect discrimination. The film mostly skips between Los Angeles, Chicago, the New York City metro area, and North Carolina. And those involved show that there's more than just going round and round on a pair of boots with four wheels attached on each foot. Just in terms of the shoes, the Los Angeles skaters often create their own taking fashionable boots, oxfords, or sneakers and fitting on wheels. The wheels are often smaller than on normal skates, and there is no rubber "stop" in the front. The skating often takes its queues for hip-hop as well as creative choreography and some traditional moves. Each region has its own style as well as choices for the kind of music - Chicago's skaters have moves that are timed to mixes of music by James Brown. The Kentucky skaters specialize in doing splits on that hard floor. In all, it is an amazing blend of choreography and athleticism, which is one reason to sit through the entire credit sequence at the end of the film.

This is also a story about civil rights and discrimination. Vintage photos show a handful of people protesting in front of a rink in a southern city. A photo with white segregationists carrying posters with swastikas is a glaring reminder of William Faulkner's saying of the past not being the past. Testimony is provided by octogenarian skaters. In more current times, rinks have closed often due to developers seeking higher priced leases or finding greater profit to be made from commercial development. Some rinks have indirect discrimination based on policies of clothing, type of skates allowed on the floor, or postings regarding the type of music that will not be played at the rink.

Brown and Winkler spend time with a single mother, Phelicia, and her two skating children, living in Compton where skating provides a gang-free environment. Reggie is a DJ in North Carolina who is trying to bring what has been euphemistically called "Adult Night" to a rink closer to home. Buddy "Love" Alexander is an owner of a rink in the Chicago area who struggles with keeping his rink open due to choice of having low admission prices in order to be affordable for the most people. And there are the individual skaters of all ages, with some amazing stunts.

Doing a little bit of internet sleuthing, this guy who can barely get around the rink once without falling has found that there is "Adult Night" skating in our town - here and here. I don't know if any of the skating is on the level seen in United Skates but it may be worth checking out.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 1, 2018 08:07 AM