By Joey Lopez
The United States is and always has been a melting pot of culture and through that a paradise of subcultures, most of which act as a conduit of artistic and self-expression. One of these subcultures, hidden away from the public eye and long thought extinct, is the massive roller skating scene. The idea of rolling skating probably conjures images of ‘70s roller rinks – white people with high socks, short shorts and massive headphones – but in reality the thing that keeps roller skating alive is a large African-American community.
“This was quite an unlikely partnership between us and the community, but ultimately a really beautiful one,” laughs Dyana Winkler, co-director and writer of roller skating documentary United Skates. “We were living in New York City and filming a different piece on what we thought was the end of the era of rolling skating. While we were filming that, we met these younger skaters that basically said, ‘Skating’s not dead, it just went underground!’ So we went with them down to Virginia, walked into a rink at midnight and stepped into this world.”
The world they found was one that has been deeply rooted into a culture that has existed for generations and attracted people from all over. Whether they were from Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, or New York, they were all there for one thing.
“If they wanted to stay connected to it, they had to travel further and further distances to keep it alive. But it became important to us as filmmakers to tell stories about our communities and we didn’t feel like this was ours… this wasn’t our story to tell. If we were going to tell this story it was going to be by and for them. It was really a collaboration but we had to choose who to put at the forefront of our film. Ultimately it was important to us to find people who, by naturally being themselves, were reflecting a story that we all could relate to. We picked three characters: one that represented what happens to a community when they lose their spaces, one was a story about a black-owned rink in a time when it’s so hard to keep these places open for the community and see the struggle from the inside, and the last is about somebody who lived in a place completely void of this culture. Each of them represented a piece of the puzzle that made up the whole.”
Through these individual stories, a little-known history of the importance of roller skating rinks rises to the surface. The beginnings of west-coast hip-hop had its start in these places; artists such as Queen Latifah and Dr. Dre had their first performances here, and DJs played the songs of these future stars. On the flip side, a darker history reveals itself: one of racism and segregation.
“At first when we fell into the world it was celebratory and so beautiful we were in awe, but we wondered if we could really sustain a feature length film just on beautiful skating. It was actually when we began to be invited by the skaters to their home rinks that we kept hearing them say ‘Come to our night,’ and were wondering what they meant by their night. That’s when we realized that, in all of these cities, rinks still had a white night and a black night. The rinks were still so segregated, and that was the tipping point that as storytellers we realized there was something deeper here. Although it will be about this beautiful celebratory world of skating, it also can look at issues of race in America that still exist right now.”
United Skates reveals a world unknown to most, showing us a culture full of celebration, love, and passion that overcomes the issues plaguing our society, faces adversity head on, and keeps their community strong with values that have survived through generations.
BeatRoute is proud to sponsor the screenings of United Skates at VIFF 2018. For more info visit www.viff.org.