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(Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler’s United Skates dropped on HBO February 19. Lead critic Chris Reed has this review.  Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not pay just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)

One of the great joys of watching well-made documentaries about cultures and cultural phenomena about which one knows little or nothing is the thrill of discovering something exciting and new (even if it is hardly new to the movie’s subjects). When the experience portrayed is right in one’s own backyard, rather than in a different country, there is a sense of even greater wonder at the parallel universe on display. It was with such surprise and fascination that I watched United Skates, the directorial debut of filmmakers Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler. In a brisk 89 minutes, they give us the fabulous world of “adult night” at the roller-skating rink, a time and place where African-American residents across the land come out for good times, great music, and pretty amazing skating. Disco meets synchronized dancing meets high-speed athleticism meets community and joy. Unfortunately, these “united skates” of America are fading fast. Who will save them and preserve this lovely tradition?

Though we mostly stay in and around Los Angeles, Chicago and select locations in North Carolina, the rinks and desire to skate exist – or existed – in cities around the nation. As we see in archival footage, they once abounded, but over the years have dwindled, thanks to zoning changes and white fear of large gatherings of people of color. No matter these developments, some rink owners have kept certain times for the black community, recognizing that large crowds bring money. Still, no one would simply label these events “black nights,” so the eventual name that stuck, after many experiments, was “adult night.” If you see that on the marquee of a rink, know what to expect: fun, fun and more fun. Given that I have not skated since I was a kid, and that my image of rinks is of placid (and boring) family gatherings, it was a delight to see the wild exuberance on display. Who wouldn’t want that?

Fortunately, countering our deteriorating national rapport between people of different racial and ethnic groups is the good will and energy of enough bright citizens to push back against the closing of rinks and disappearance of “adult nights.” People who grew up skating and have brought their kids up to enjoy skating – often as a healthy, peaceful alternative to less benign teen activities – refuse to let go. We meet some of them, including Phelicia, in Los Angeles, with her 5 children, all in love with the tradition, and Reggie, in North Carolina, who, tired of driving 6 hours for an “adult night” worth his trouble, spearheads a local one, showing the rink owner just how great the crowd can be. Their stories, among others, offer hope that skating, particularly of the exciting variety these good folks practice, might stick around for a while. Here’s hoping. Time to slip on a pair of skates and head on down.

 – Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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