The Overlooked History of African American Skate Culture

The new documentary 'United Skates' explores the influence of roller skating on the civil rights movement and the birth of hip-hop.

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Feb 14 2019, 11:29pm

Skaters at a 'United Skates' promotional event in Chicago earlier this week. Photo by Daniel Boczarski via Getty Images

It started with a small group of skaters in Central Park. Documentary filmmakers Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler first encountered them about six years ago, their moves begging to be filmed. What they didn’t realize was just how deep the world of skating went. Now, after being invited in by the community, they’ve released a full-length documentary about skate culture called United Skates, which looks at roller skating culture in African American communities across the country.

Skating to James Brown and a wealth of hip-hop and R&B, the scene bursts with personal expression, vibrant style, beauty, athleticism, and a sense of family. Despite the community's historical significance to both the civil rights movement (skaters protested for desegregated rinks back in the 1960s) and the birth of hip-hop (rappers would perform at rinks when other venues wouldn’t allow them), the film reveals that the scene's very existence is under threat as rinks around the country close down. But even in its darkest moments, Winkler and Brown's film shows there's hope.

The result is a thoughtful, considerate, and fascinating film that both celebrates a culture and inspires its preservation. “That was the idea of roller skating, putting one foot past the other to get somewhere,” says one of the film’s characters, Reverend Koen. The film, which was executive produced by John Legend, airs next Monday on HBO.

I spoke to Winkler and Brown about the experience of making the film, the effect they hope it has, Queen Latifah, and more.

VICE: How did you go from being first-time feature film directors to working with John Legend?
Dyana Winkler: We knew we had an important story we were being privileged to tell and needed to do the best job we could. We kept our heads down and worked our butts off. Tina and I did every role in the making of this film for a lot of years, from shooting it ourselves to sound to producing and directing it. It really wasn’t until the end when we had a nearly finished product we were very proud of that we were able to bring it to someone as reputable as John Legend and have him take interest in the film.

How did you first arrive at this story? When did you realize it would be a full-length documentary?
Tina Brown: When we started filming the Central Park skaters in New York maybe six years ago, we thought they were the last of the roller skaters. We met two African American skaters who said skating isn’t dead, it’s just underground. We followed them overnight on a bus to a skate party in Richmond, Virginia and walked into this world. At first we backed away from telling the story because we’re not from the community. But they kept bringing us back to tell it. We feel very privileged and felt a huge responsibility to tell it right.

What do you hope the film accomplishes? What effect do you hope showing it on HBO has?
Winkler: As filmmakers, we can use storytelling to raise awareness about deeper issues. Here we used the beauty of skating and the celebration of this world to share hard-hitting issues about why this community faces stereotyping, why roller rinks are still segregated in this country, why on “adult nights” skaters aren’t treated the same—there’s heavy policing and metal detectors absent on other nights. We hope people fall in love with the people from this world, with this amazing skating, and ultimately feel protective of this community. We’ve watched these closed rinks become the same 10 big box stores. If we don’t, as a community, fight for these spaces, they’ll quickly disappear.

What was the process of making this film like as people who were not part of the community?
Winkler: It is incredibly important to us that films be made by and for the communities they’re about. When Tina and I first were welcomed into this world, we put our cameras down and said this is not our story to tell. I’m from Hawaii, Tina’s from Australia. We hoped somebody else told this story because it’s very special and unique. The skaters said no, we really want you. The next one’s gonna be in Chicago, we want you to come. If we made the film, it had to be with the skaters every step of the way, by them, for them. Everywhere we went, every city we shot in, a skater picked us up from the airport, housed us, brought us into their rink. We crafted this story by listening: it was theirs to tell. One of the most beautiful compliments we got was at a private screening for the skate community in Detroit, attended by skaters from across the country. At the end of the film, we got the longest standing ovation, everyone was crying, we were crying. One of the skaters said, "It felt like this film was made by one of us." Then another skater said, "After five years and 500 hours of footage, this film was made by one of us!" Everyone started cheering. We took great care to do this right. We’re proud of the outcome for that reason.

How did you want to show the way skate culture birthed hip-hop?
Winkler: Skaters would tell us all the time, we saw so and so at the rink, this person grew up with us, Dre was a DJ at the rink when he was young. We were trying to show the importance of roller rinks as community spaces that helped give rise to these hip-hop artists, that were centerpieces for early civil rights battles—one of the first sit-ins in the country was a skate-in at a roller rink.

Brown: We also took time finding footage and photos of artists in their early days performing in rinks. We were lucky to find this Queen Latifah footage for the film. She was 19 or 20 performing in a rink in LA. That took about a year of negotiating to get. It had only been shown once.

How do you think the community will be affected after it’s seen by mainstream audiences?
Brown: We talked with the community about what this exposure would do. Obviously, they needed to have more people know about skating and hopefully be inspired and want to skate more. But they understood the film would change it, that perhaps the community might lose the essence of what it was about initially. But with three rinks closing a month across the country, they understood if they didn’t do something soon to have more eyes on this community, they might not have spaces to continue growing.

Winkler: There’s such a safe space at these nights in these roller rinks. Nobody locks their lockers, no one steals anything. We’re worried that will change when the masses see the value and beauty happening on these nights. At the same time, it’s a sacrifice they were willing to make because the rinks are at risk of disappearing. We had one skater who said to us, "You give us a basketball and we create the slam dunk. You give us a piece of cardboard, and we breakdance on it. You give us roller skates and we create this." One of our main characters, Reggie, said, "Look at what we’ve done in spite of all the adversity, all the fighting we’ve had to do just to be allowed to skate. Imagine what we could create if we just were free to be ourselves any night, anywhere?" That was important to us to say.

Follow Elyssa Goodman on Twitter.

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