For years, roller-skating rinks have been a constant for African-American communities across the U.S., serving as a meeting ground, a place to have fun and an incubator of iconic hip-hop talents like Queen Latifah and N.W.A.
As America’s last standing roller rinks are threatened with closure, a community joins forces in a racially charged environment to save the underground African-American subculture of roller skating, which has been overlooked by the mainstream for generations – yet has given rise to some of the world's greatest musical talents.
From executive producer John Legend and first-time directors Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown, the documentary United Skates highlights the dynamic world of roller skating, showcasing African-American rinks and skaters across the country as they fight to keep the culture alive and skate their hearts out. The film features interviews with hip-hop legends like Salt-N-Pepa, Coolio, Vin Rock of Naughty by Nature and World Class Wreckin’ Cru.
United Skates spotlights three skaters fighting for their community: L.A. native Phelicia, a single mom who grew up in skates and hopes to keep skating alive for her children; North Carolinian Reggie, who lives hours from any rink that offers a night for black skaters and vows to launch his own; and Buddy Love, the owner of Chicago-based Rich City Skate, who struggles to keep his rink open, despite financial pressure.
Phelicia, who has passed her passion on to her five kids, feels most at home at a rink, explaining, “It can be a thousand people on the floor, but when you’re in the zone, it’s as if it’s just you.” Like many in her community, she lives for “adult night,” the one night a week geared toward black patrons – a vestige of white rink owners’ attempts to segregate black skaters.
Adult nights have become skating parties marked by incredible moves and music. Reggie, who says skating brought him “community [and] a sense of culture,” is disappointed that his local rink provides neither. In fact, none of the 14 rinks in North Carolina have an adult night. Hoping to start his own, Reggie meets with an owner receptive to the idea of bringing in new clientele.
Buddy Love, whose family has owned Chicago-based Rich City Skate for a decade, laments the financial struggles he’s had to endure “to keep the business open for the community.” He’s grateful for the generation who came before him, picketing and weathering violence to fight for the right to skate. One senior regular at Rich City suggests that the act of skating – “putting one foot in front of the other to get somewhere” – inspired him to never give up.
Meanwhile, the L.A. skating community mourns the closure of Skate Depot, its last remaining rink, extending the wave of rink closings across the country in the wake of rezoning laws and increased land values in urban areas.
In L.A., during the height of gang violence in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the roller rink served as neutral ground when the Crips and Bloods had to share the World on Wheels rink. In 2013, this safe space closed, despite the community’s best efforts to keep it open. After hearing of Skate Depot’s impending closing, Phelicia and her family are feeling its loss. After driving hours to another rink, Phelicia gets into a heated argument with an employee who claims their custom wheels violate rink rules.
As local rinks shutter, annual national skating events take on even greater importance. At Independence Roll, hosted by Rich City Skate, skaters across the U.S. represent their cities’ varied skating styles. The result is an unforgettable night of joy, tempered by Rich City’s pending future.
Six months later, Buddy Love still hopes to keep skating alive for his young son, even if it’s at someone else’s rink. In L.A., after three years without a rink, World on Wheels reopens under new owners, and Phelicia and her family join the enormous crowd to lace up their skates once more. “This is my history, this is my culture,” says Reggie, who celebrates the success of his first adult night and is determined to keep fighting for skating’s future. “We just never stop. Whatever the situation, we’re gonna roll.”
United Skates is directed and produced by Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown; executive producers, Jeffrey Soros, Simon Horsman, Julie Parker Benello, Jim Butterworth, Daniel J. Chalfen, Brenda Robinson, Nion McEvoy, Patty Quillin, Tina Brown, Matthew Peterson, Mike Jackson, Ty Stiklorius, John Legend; co-executive producers, Josh Alexander, Maida Lynn, Johnny Nunez; edited by Katharine Garrison; cinematographers, Matthew Peterson ACS, Tina Brown, Dyana Winkler; original music composed by Jongnic Bontemps, Jim Winkler.