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Wednesday
Dec122018

Doc Corner: The Thrilling 'United Skates'

By Glenn Dunks

Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown’s utterly divine United Skates begins with a tangle of bodies that zig, zag and spin across a roller rink floor in choreographed fashion. Close-ups of sweat-damp skin and excited faces. Neon signs, fluorescent clothes and a thumping beat. In just these brief opening moments before the title crashes on screen, I was hypnotised by the way the camera was capturing these people and embedding itself on the floor, swooping and swinging with as much vigour as the people its watching. The way it captures their passion, their movement and, without even saying a word, their unbridled joy and the memories of days gone by.

It’s my favourite opening of the year; nothing has quite approached the very simple act of hooking me so immediately and in such a way that I bolted upright, eager to see where I was going to be taken. Luckily, United Skates isn’t just about the roller skates and the booty shorts and the basslines. It’s about so much more, smartly using a nostalgic touchstone of African American culture as a means to dissect contemporary issues around race.

In the promotional texts for United Skates, roller skating is described as an “underground subculture”, and while my experience with it is admittedly minor – its fad period was ever so slightly before my time and I mostly just know it from Xanadu – that seems like something of an understatement. And while roller skating crossed all boundaries, at least for a period of time in the 1980s, it was the African American community that embraced it most whole-heartedly. The roller-skating rink was neutral territory in a sense, an escape from class struggles and community violence for people eager for an outlet for creativity. DJs and hip-hop artists turned the venues into concerts (NWA had some of their earlier performances in one) and collectives would train choreographed routines with each region having their own unique moves and dances.

But Winkler and Brown are wise not to make their movie, their first, a mere nostalgia fest. United Skates easily could have been just a whole lot of archival footage from rinks gone by with talking heads discussing their importance. That probably would have been a fine movie, a perfectly acceptable 90 minutes, although perhaps little more than a history lesson. And in fact, for a moment after these explosive opening minutes, it appears that may be the case as brief appearances by the likes of Salt-N-Pepa appear to lend their thoughts. But as if its directors realized what they had, the greatness of United Skates lies in the fact that it does offer viewers the history, but contextualizes it to the contemporary age and observes several different collections of people around the country as they try and keep the dying activity a part of their lives. I dare you to not get emotional watching a mother tell her child that a new roller rink is opening nearby. Even I was taken aback by how invested I became in their stories, each a compelling part of a wider story about race in America that plenty of other documentaries have covered with their own point of view.

Their camera (and they share cinematography duties with Matthew Peterson) captures the continued police presence at so-called “black nights” and subsequently the way many venues have skewed these nights to give way to more generic ‘family’ events. We see a perfectly good roller rink, the site of historic gang truce in Los Angeles, get shut down and rezoned and sit empty for years to come. We see the way multiple families come together for roller skating, their own form of familial bonding. We see roller rinks shut down, threatening the community at large. Most importantly, we get to witness a celebration of black culture that all too often gets sidelined by stories of violence and anger.

And tying it all together are the captivating skating sequences. Filmed presumably on skates themselves, the camera gets thick into the action and they are truly a wonder to behold. What I wouldn’t have given to revel in the exuberance of these scenes for longer. They are vibrant and exciting to watch, but their true brilliance is only revealed the longer Winkler and Brown allow us to become embedded in this story and we discover not just the physical prowess of the skating, but the emotional heart behind it, too.

Release: Currently in limited release

Oscar Chances: The documentary branch rarely go for subjects that could come off as 'frivilous' (even when they're nothing of the sort). Even the likes of Faces Places or Cutie and the Boxer were still about art. And even though United Skates is obviously about much more than just skating, skating is what propels it. Unfortunately, that is a likely handicap. At least it's an IDA nominee!

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