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'United Skates' review: Roller-skating doc is compelling viewing

The documentary "United Skates" airs on HBO.

The documentary "United Skates" airs on HBO.  Credit: HBO / Christopher Vanderwal

DOCUMENTARY “United Skates”

WHEN|WHERE Monday at 8 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Two first-time directors, Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown, spent several years making “United Skates,” which focuses on a lesser-documented aspect of  black culture: roller-skating. Like many once-popular pastimes — bowling, mini-golf, drive-in moviegoing — skating is on the decline, with rinks closing as consumers turn to technology for entertainment. What makes these places a little different is their function as social hubs for generations of black communities.

MY SAY “United Skates” is not just another documentary about a niche activity — step dancing, ballroom dancing, crossword solving — although it does start out that way. Subjects speak of roller-skating as a way of forgetting problems, cutting loose and feeling free.

So far, so familiar, but stick with it. “United Skates” is about to get interesting.

For starters, it turns out skating played a part in the early years of hip-hop. Various rap artists, from Salt-N-Pepa to Coolio, show up to explain how skating rinks doubled as nightclubs and even concert halls. Southern California’s Skateland, in particular, played host to a young Queen Latifah and N.W.A. A clip from the biopic “Straight Outta Compton” shows the rap group holding an early concert there — proof that this secret history has been hiding in plain sight.

What’s more, the skating itself is dazzling. Moves range from graceful to gymnastic to seemingly impossible, much of it bearing trace evidence of disco, line-dancing, break-dancing and even jitterbugging. Some of these routines have colorful regional names — the Texas Slow Walk, Baltimore Snapping, St. Louis Ballroom — and skaters proudly show them off at a Chicago convention that provides the film with some of its most delightful sequences. Viewers unfamiliar with this vibrant culture may wonder why it has never crossed their radar before.

Here’s one reason: Most of these skaters are black. They’ve been segregated by tradition to what is euphemistically called “Adult Night” at many rinks. This history goes back about as far as you’d expect: “United Skates” finds civil rights-era photos of an integration battle over a Southern rink between black sign-holders (“Put Down Hate and Let’s Skate”) and white neo-Nazis wearing swastikas. And the history continues. At today’s rinks, Winkler and Brown spot what look like modern Jim Crow laws that ban anything popular with black skaters, from saggy pants to fashionable “mini-wheels.” We see a black family turned away from a rink for having the wrong-size wheels, even though a white skater seems to be wearing the same ones — a small injustice that mirrors a much larger one.

With its high-energy skating sequences and several compelling characters, including a rink owner facing closure and a young skater at risk of turning to crime, “United Skates” makes for compelling viewing. See it now before someone makes the inevitable feature-film version.

BOTTOM LINE A celebration of a vibrant black subculture that also shows how discrimination can pervade even the most harmless pastime. Highly recommended.

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