The Atlanta Jackknife, the St. Louis Ballroom, the Philly Fast Backwards. These are roller-skating styles that evolved out of their eponymous cities, with the help of hip-hop and custom wheels, to form a transcontinental culture for black skaters—who still encounter rinks that are segregated by insidious dress codes and music rules. “No baggy pants.” “No hip-hop.” “ This is a family establishment. ” But it’s a culture under threat. Three American rinks close every month, taking with them a gathering place and a sense of community. Phelicia Wright—the daughter of a skate-D.J. mom and skate-guard dad, and the mother of five skaters herself—says skating for her is like church. “If you lose yourself in it,” she says, “you come out feeling brand new.” Wright and her children are among the star subjects in HBO’s United Skates, a new documentary by Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown, and executive produced by John Legend, which debuts in February.
Cezar Juan Trevino
The first time the directors saw a stream of skaters performing Nutcrackers—a Chicago move characterized by a flip that lands in a split—their compulsion to watch turned into a commitment to tell the story of the community. Over five years, the filmmakers traveled across the country, taking overnight buses to far-flung cities, sleeping on the floors of skaters who graciously hosted them, applying for grants, running a Kickstarter campaign, and shooting and editing more than 500 hours of footage. The film uses deep archival material to chronicle skating’s roots, from the civil-rights era to a Queen Latifah rink show in the 80s, up to present day, and features original interviews with rap artists and rink owners. Artists including Vin Rock (Naughty by Nature), Alonzo Williams (World Class Wreckin’ Cru), and Cheryl James and Sandra Denton (Salt-N-Pepa) talk about how rinks provided venues for their shows when no one else would host them. “Roller skating was hip-hop,” says Denton.
Sierra Hill skates at the Holiday Skate Center in Orange, CA
Photograph by Micaiah Carter. United Skates tackles an immense amount of information in short order with sparkling clarity, twisting from heart-thumping highs to melancholic lows and back again. It is a testament to the filmmakers and their editor, Katharine Garrison, that the final story is as polished as it is painted. Graphic artist Leanne Dare designed a constellation of dimming lights spangled across a map of America to illustrate rinks closing, as well as a custom font used throughout the film based on protest signs and hip-hop flyers
“They fought for access to this space,” the directors explain, pointing out that the rink was even a safe space for rival gangs in the 80s and 90s. It’s a story Winkler and Brown—from Hawaii and Australia, respectively—didn’t initially feel was theirs to tell. But the community rallied behind them, quite literally. “Phelicia actually pushed us from behind while we were skating,” says Winkler, noting that, in order to make this film, the directors needed to learn a crucial new skill: filming on skates
But it is the skating community itself that leaves you feeling uplifted, sad, and hopeful all at once. As Phelicia Wright’s daughter London says after their local rink closes, “Skating is my life. ” She echoes the footage of grandparents who abandon their canes for a set of wheels and a young couple who skate while pushing their baby’s stroller. “You never know what people are going through,” says Wright. “They want to run that circle.”