There’s a threshold a lot of niche-subject, microbudget documentaries struggle to cross: maintaining audience interest after the initial appeal of their subject fades. United Skates has a lot to live up to in that respect, as the initial rush of its documentation of black skating rink culture is so fun & visually stunning that it seems nearly impossible to sustain that energy. In the early days of hip-hop it was difficult for acts to book legitimate venues outside of house & block parties, and the open-floor venues of skating rinks were some of the first spaces to fulfill that need (as you can see depicted in narrative biopic films like Straight Outta Compton, White Boy Rick, and CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story). Skating rink hip-hop culture evolved from there to flourish on a national level, with regional scenes in cities like Chicago, L.A., and Miami developing their own unique skating styles & soundtracks. United Skates documents this culture in decline, with many of the most significant venues in the culture closing their doors forever, long after performers like N.W.A., Naughty by Nature, and Salt & Peppa had moved on to other venues (and eventually faded away in their own right). United Skates finds plenty of distinct visual fodder in documenting the fashions & skating styles of each participating region, but where it really develops into something special is documenting the means & methods of those closures.
United Skates is a documentary “about” black skating rink culture that’s actually about how all pockets of black culture are policed & legislated out of existence in small, cumulative increments. This is a subculture that was only forged in the first place because rinks would unofficially segregate their weekly schedule by signaling a “black night,” promoting events like Soul Night, Martin Luther King Jr. Night, and Adult Night. The “Adult Night” designation in particular unified black skating rink culture with a clear signifier that created the very culture white rink owners were attempting to discourage from developing. Two decades later, Adult Night parties are being policed out of existence in both small-scale rules applications and systemic city-level legislation. On a rink-to-rink level, cops are hired to provide “security” (read: intimidation) at Adult Night events that rinks don’t bother to enforce otherwise. Custom skates (along with more universally discriminated clothing markers like “saggy” pants) are outlawed from rinks as a private policy to discourage black patronage. On a city level, skating rinks are zoned out of existence to supposedly make way for condos & corporate retailers, only to rot in vacant lots, unused & blighted. United Skates’s titular subject is incredibly niche in its specificity, but the way it’s documented here has much larger, systemic implications on how black culture is legislated into oblivion.
Watching Adult Night skaters from all over the country show off their particular performance styles and custom skating gear as the cinematographer glides in the rinks beside them is incredibly endearing, but it’s a pleasure that can only carry the film so far. Where United Skates excels is in framing that Adult Night partying as an act of political resistance. Black-owned skating rinks, national Adult Night travelers, and decades-running “rink rats” are demonstrated to be direct political resistors to a system that would like nothing more than for them to just give up & fade away. The flashy hip-hop parties that gave birth to this culture are long gone, but continuing its existence is explained to be far more than empty, stubborn nostalgia. It’s a refusal to give into micro & macro policing of a culture that’s being pushed out only because of the racial demographics of the community behind it. It’s that larger political importance that makes United Skates much more rewarding & substantial than you might initially expect, given the scale of tis budget (perhaps explaining its Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival).