Critics' Pick

United Skates (NR)

Documentary 90 min. November 30, 2018
By Alan Scherstuhl
Straight from the “Here’s Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” Department, Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown’s vital United Skates works as a celebration, lament and exciting overview of its subject: the roller rink as African-American community center. With rousing footage of skaters acing stylish tricks, the directors survey the past and present of roller-rink culture. They tell the story of the time the Bloods and Crips reached a peace accord on the neutral ground of one Los Angeles skate palace, and link New York, New Jersey and L.A. rinks to the rise of hip-hop. Salt-N-Pepa note that an act performing for skaters had to be especially powerful, because the audience was already annoyed that the show was interrupting their skate time.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers survey life today on the rink scene, charting the differences in skate style between different cities. Skaters demonstrating techniques for the directors’ cameras make for continual highlights. And much of the present-day free-skate footage, shot at what have come to be known as “Adult Nights” at skating rinks, also proves invigorating. Relish the momentum, the joy and the peacocking pride of grown-up skaters.

The skating rink and those African-American “Adult Nights” are endangered, of course. Rising real estate prices have inspired landlords to give rinks the boot. Then there’s the persistent heartbreaking truth that white folks — and law enforcement — get so easily scared by the prospect of black Americans gathering together. Often, a scene-survey doc that takes on so much — cultural history, present-day portraiture, regional distinctions, celebrity interviews, fly-on-the-wall reportage — can play as scattershot. That’s not so with United Skates. Round and round it flows — why not jump on in?
Tina Brown, Dyana Winkler Dyana Winkler HBO Films

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