this documentary charts black roller rinks from 80s hip-hop to beyoncé

'United Skates' directors Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler discuss their electrifying, heartbreaking film.

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Apr 27 2018, 3:48pm

“Roller skating was hip-hop!” Pepa from legendary group Salt-N-Pepa declares at the beginning of the documentary United Skates. If this is news to you, you’re not alone. Directors Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler say they caught even “hip-hop connoisseurs” off guard with this information when their film debuted at Tribeca Film Festival last week.

United Skates charts how roller skating rinks across the US have thrived off-the-radar for decades as incubators of hip-hop culture and a passionate African American skating community.

“A lot of people are shocked that this had any relevance to hip-hop at all,” Brown says, perched in a chair in a Tribeca hotel, the day after the film’s premiere. “But we found out that there were a lot of artists who got their starts performing in the rinks.” “And the list is long,” Winkler, who’s sitting next to her, adds. She rattles off some names: Busta Rhymes, Wu-Tang Clan, Rakim. “Nelly wrote his first album in the basement of a roller rink.”

The two directors have amassed a wealth of knowledge over the five years they’ve been making their documentary. They’ve also gathered over 500 hours of footage, and incredible clips of emerging hip-hop stars performing in the rinks in the 80s and 90s. One rink in Los Angeles alone hosted performances by Dr. Dre, Queen Latifah, and Ice Cube, right before they blew up.

Brown and Winkler didn’t know roller rinks were hotbeds for hip-hop when they started filming skaters in New York’s Central Park. “We thought they were the last of the disco era, and if they passed, that would be the end of roller skating!” Brown exclaims. One day she and Winkler struck up a conversation with two skaters. “They said, ‘Roller-skating isn’t going to die, it’s gone underground.’” Winkler recalls one saying: “If you want to see what real skating is like, you should come with us.”

“So we went walking with them and we jumped on a bus from Port Authority and went overnight to Richmond, Virginia, and we walked into a national skate party,” Brown continues. “It was midnight, and we walked in the door and there were thousands of skaters there,” her eyes wide with excitement.

“We walked into the world of this film, basically,” Winkler adds, smiling. “Barely anyone that was there was from Virginia. They were from Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, New York, LA. That’s when we started learning that their home rinks were either closed or weren’t welcoming.”

Various skaters started inviting the directors to their cities, as different regions are known for different skating styles and signature moves – Texas has the Slow Walk, Atlanta has the Jackknife, Detroit has the Open House. The skaters told the directors which nights were “their” nights at their home rinks. “We were like, ‘What do you mean, your night?’” Winkler frowns. It was then they learned that segregation still exists in roller rinks across the US, in the form of “adult nights.” In the past they were also called “soul nights,” “R&B nights,” “urban nights,” and “sepia nights.”

Brown and Winkler realized then that they couldn’t make a film just about skating. “We realized that the roller rinks represented a whole lot more than just skating,” says Winkler. “And we wanted to make clear in the film that this is a space that is politically charged, that is deeply relevant to our country, for so many reasons.”

Their resulting film is a passionate portrait of African American roller-skating culture and resilience in the face of racism from police, white rink owners, and their surrounding communities. The discrimination comes in many forms – from unnecessarily heavy security and swarms of police on “adult nights” (compared with no security on the other nights), to white-run rinks suddenly banning hip-hop and R&B music and the smaller-wheeled skates that African American skaters typically use. In one heartbreaking scene, a now-elderly skater recounts being attacked by Klansmen outside his local rink, where he’d been peacefully protesting to be allowed to even skate at all.

The irony is that these rinks had, after years of effort, become safe spaces for people to go to, regardless of color or affiliation. The film shows how rival gangs would skate side-by-side, without issue. But institutionalized racism and corporate interests continue to crush the skaters and rink owners.

Winkler says, “Once we saw what was going on, first-hand, we made a conscious effort to use our privilege to expose what we could. We have been very conscious of the fact that we don’t come from this community, so we spoke to the community and we made sure that they wanted us to do this. And then we made the film with them, so that we weren’t imposing any of our ideas onto it, but we were just allowing them to use us as a tool.”

As first-time directors, Winkler and Brown did most things themselves – producing, filming, recording sound. “We were just a two-women team doing it all,” Brown says. “We had other people help us along the way, but the majority of the time it was just the two of us.” By doing it themselves, they were able to get to know and earn the trust of the community, and as a result they learned amazing, honest and, at times, harrowing stories. Winkler says, “We lived with them, we slept on their floors, they picked us up at the airport – they’re our family.”

One skating family the filmmakers followed had one of its youngest sons fall into trouble and wind up behind bars after his local rink closed down. It illustrated how crucial these spaces are for keeping kids safe and occupied.

The filmmakers also captured the community’s efforts to preserve itself by organizing national skate parties, like the one they found themselves at in Virginia. Some of the stars that got their starts in the rinks have also lent their support to one that reopened in LA last year, along with stars that have come up since. “Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Drake, Usher… They’ve all skated at World On Wheels since it reopened,” says Winkler. She and Brown hope United Skates spurs others to action. “We’re hoping that with the film, they see that there’s an interest, and that they need to invest back in this community.”

Meanwhile, the film has already enjoyed great support – Tribeca co-founder Robert De Niro has been singing its praises in the press, and after its initial four screenings at Tribeca sold out, a fifth was added. United Skates will continue to make the rounds of festivals until it finds a distributor to put it in theaters. In the meantime Brown and Winkler are still thinking DIY.

“We would like to show the film in roller rinks across the country, and have skaters come and busloads of kids brought in, and people from the council brought in, and they could have a discussion afterwards and then everyone could go skating!” Brown says excitedly.

John Legend recently signed on as an executive producer of the film, so the directors hope this celebrity support will help spread the word and amplify the social issues.

“Fingers and skates crossed!” Brown says.

See "United Skates" at Tribeca Film Festival on April 29, and at Hot Docs Festival on April 28, 30 and May 4. For future screenings, check the film's website.