‘United Skates’ documentary chronicles fight to keep skate rinks alive in black communities

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United Skates will screen at a/perture cinema on March 18. (Courtesy of HBO)

A young Ice Cube raps on stage, a disco ball cascading hundreds of specks of light onto the walls and floor. A thousand people fill the room. The venue? A Skateland roller rink.

A newly released documentary delves into the long-established importance of roller rinks in the black community. The 90-minute doc United Skates, which is available to stream on HBO GO and HBO NOW, uncovers the link between the old-school pastime and aspects of black culture like its significance in music, keeping the peace between gangs and even its role during the Civil Rights Movement. The film will screen at A/perture Cinema on March 18, with a post-screening Q&A with the directors.

“The connection between roller rinks and music — they go hand in hand,” says Maulud Allah, a journalist interviewed in the film.

Grainy scenes of Biggie Smalls and Queen Latifah fill the screen as narrators describe how many hip-hop giants got their start in the rink. Craig Schweisinger, the owner of Skateland LA in Compton, says he was known as the “craziest white man in Compton.”

“Our first DJ was Dr. Dre,” he says as he picks up a preserved poster from one of the rink’s shows.

“Hip-hop and rap artists had no place to perform,” Allah says. “So, the only place that people could perform was in skating rinks.”

Salt-N-Pepa, who also make appearances in the film, back Allah up.

“Skating rinks was hardcore,” says Cheryl Renee James, otherwise known as Salt. “Like if you could rock out in a skating rink, then you know you’re doing well.”

Skating styles differ based on location, much like music. (Courtesy of HBO)

According to the film, an average of three rinks in the country close each month. A montage displays the lifespan of numerous rinks, many of which closed in the mid 2000s after being open for decades.

“As you go across the country, you will find, if it’s a popular rink, it’s because they have a really strong African-American skate community,” says Pete, a custom skate designer in LA.

The documentary covers the history of roller rinks in the black community, spotlighting the different styles of rolling in each of the regions. 

Skaters from Kentucky gracefully slide under each other’s legs while those from Philly skate backwards, their feet barely lifting off the wooden surface. “Train riders” from New York and New Jersey form a line, arms locked as they command the floor as a single body. Tying different locations with local skaters, United Skates follows a group of enthusiasts who are fighting to keep rinks across the nation open.

Phelicia Wright grew up in skating rinks. (Courtesy of HBO)

Phelicia Wright, who anchors much of the story, grew up in Los Angeles and has passed down her love of skating to her five children. 

“My dad was a skate guard and my mom was a DJ,” Wright says. “I’m considered a rink rat; I was born and raised in the rink.”

She and her kids frequent Skate Depot, a rink in Cerritos that is revealed to have closed in the latter half of the film.

Wright glides on the floor, her smile as wide as her stride. She skates backwards, her hips sashaying back and forth, making it look as natural as dancing but cooler.

“Something about hitting that floor,” she says. “It’s where I can breathe.”

Her son Shannon shows off a pair of modded skates he made from his navy-blue boat shoes. He says he switched the heavy metal plate and changed out the wheels for smaller ones so he can perform tricks with more ease.

“This is why I am who I am today,” he says. “Skating to me is like….”

He trails off, but the sentiment is clear.

While it may seem like just a childhood pastime or a place to host children’s birthday parties, United Skates makes apparent that for many, roller-skating has become so intertwined with their lives that without it, they can become imbalanced.

In the latter half of the film, Shannon is caught breaking and entering into someone’s home. His mom is the one to turn him in.

“I’d rather see him in jail than dead,” she says as she cries. The incident comes about a year after their local rink closes.

A map plotting all of the rinks in the country flashes onto the screen, more and more dots disappearing as the timeline progresses.

A group of supporters picket outside of the Los Angeles city hall in 2013 to try and keep World on Wheels, a local rink, from closing. The rink’s location had been rezoned and in 2017, three years after it shut its doors, the building remained empty and unused.

The location was more than just a community hub; it was peaceful territory where the Blood and Crips gangs formed a treaty.

“The gangs made a pact that the rink would be declared neutral territory,” says Connie, the former manager of the rink. “Everybody got a pass to come skate.”

The film also interviews skaters from the ’50s and ’60s who fought for their right to skate in white-dominated rinks.

“When roller rinks were forced to integrate, a lot of whites they just stopped going,” says Reggie Brown, a North Carolina local fighting to resuscitate struggling rinks. “So, the rink owners found new ways to segregate us.”

He mentions the emergence of “adult nights” in rinks across the country where a predominantly black clientele would take over the rink for one night a week.

“Adult nights have to survive for us to survive,” Brown says.

The documentary points out the layer of racism that black skaters often have to face when going to rinks.

Signs on the door prohibiting baggy pants and excluding rap or R&B are often plastered on the walls.

Many also ban modded skates, a quintessential part of the black skate community.

The film follows Brown as he introduces the idea of adult night to a rink in Charlotte, hoping to bring black skaters from across the state to the event.

The owner of the rink takes to the idea, hopeful that the event will bring new customers.

In Chicago, Buddy Love has owned Rich City Skate for the last 10 years.

Buddy Love and his family owned Rich City Skate for ten years before it closed in 2016. (Courtesy of HBO)

“We’ve hit financial struggles but we need to keep the business open for the community,” he says. Towards the end of the film during a national skate event, it’s revealed that Rich City Skate will also close. Love says it’s hard to keep a rink open, especially when they have to pay $96,000 in taxes but only charge five dollars admission. Tears stream down his face as he is confronted with the fact that they have to close their doors.

The film doesn’t hold back on the difficulty of keeping and maintaining skating rinks. Still, there’s hope to be had when back in LA, the new co-owners of World on Wheels reopen the rink for the first time in three years. Supporters and skate fans come in the carloads to hit the floor once again.

Wright hauls her kids into the car and they arrive at the rink, all carrying their own unique pairs of skates.

Macklemore’s “Glorious” plays in the background as hundreds of skaters take to the floor, dancing, snapping their fingers and high fiving each other.

Shannon, who is now on probation, skates next to his mom, a coy smile spreading across his face.

“The first thing he wants to do is go skating,” Wright says. “And now it’s possible.”

As skaters embrace and fill the floor at World on Wheels, moving like a continuous wave, Love narrates in the background.

“This is my history,” he says. “This is my culture. We want to protect it. So, we know that we have to continue. We have to bring the next generation. We just never stop. Whatever the situation, we’re gonna roll.”

United Skates will screen at a/perture cinema on March 18. Find tickets at here. Learn more about the documentary at here.

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