Cast your mind back to Michael Jackson’s Bad music video. Among the moonwalking and crotch-grabs, one dancer stands out. It’s a gentleman who moonwalks with roller skates. The slow, controlled manoeuvre looks effortless but, we know, those wheels are free flowing and his calf muscles and strength are what hold the shoes in place.
In the eighties, on Venice Beach, the professionals of roller skate dancing gathered. Not only could they moonwalk, but they could spin in a single spot, at lightning speeds. They would combine breakdancing with ballet techniques to showcase a set of moves that look impossible, except for the wealth of video footage that exists.
Roller Dreams takes us back to the heyday of roller skate dancing. Black Americans, from Oakwood and across LA, would descend onto Venice Beach to practice for hours to become an accomplished roller skate dancer. Terrell, young and chasing women, combined breakdance and hip-hop. Larry, “the Swiss pocket knife”, had his “fancy feet” to bust a move. Sally with her “smooth glides” and graceful control – she called it “sex on wheels” as she shut her eyes and drifted into a trance. Jimmy and his “organised confusion”; he’d fall and turn it into some sort of slick move. Duval, clad in a superhero get-up, or baggy pants and cowboy boots, had the entire routine – and accompanied it with a warm, crazy smile.
Then, finally, the leader of the pack, Mad (or Mr Mad, as it says emblazoned across his shirt) tied in a manner that equally shows off his tight, toned abs and reminds us how the 1980’s was not always the time for fashion. This was a smooth groove to the tunes of funky 70’s bass riffs and electro-pop. It’s fun, alive with energy and a perfect place to pick up girls. Terrell says it best as he explains how it is “a love triangle of music, skating and women”.
Director Kate Hickey, after introducing this niche art form, then takes us back to 1965. 6-days of rioting in the war-torn world of LA, and something recognisable as it took place in the same era as Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. Mad (James Lightning), who removed himself from the skating crew years prior, reflects on his upbringing. These riots were merely the context of an abusive world he grew up within. In Watts, South LA, it was all white businesses in black neighbourhoods creating a perfect concoction of inequality on Main Street. Mad had no father and the mother he did have would beat him at 2 or 3am in the morning.
Seeing a roller skate routine one morning on Venice Beach changed things. Mad “didn’t wan’a just do the routine; I wan’a be the routine”. He channelled all his pain and frustration into practising and others joined. Tall, muscular and deep-voiced, Mad was a black role model in 80’s America, protecting those who wanted to dance. The crips and bloods, gangs of LA, wouldn’t want to upset the booming Adonis of Mad. To Prince’s ‘Kiss‘ and James Brown’s ‘I’m Black and Proud‘, this became a way to escape the violence of poverty and in the Californian sun, these men became gods underneath palm trees and tangerine skies.
Roller Dreams will describe the history of a particular group of men and women and then, focus in on Mad, and the personal demons he has had to confront. While the history provides vital context, it is sprinkled on so thinly that it almost feels like an afterthought. Roller Dreams always retains the excitement and energy of the early days, ensuring you’re hooked. Footage of the dancers is taken by a viewer who stands close refusing to cut away. The seamless capture of an exceptionally cool dancing style is lovingly shown in its entirety.
But the story of these roller skaters is a tragic tale. In 2017, we continue to deal with the fallout from Ferguson and Charlottesville. The murders of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and Michael Brown are still etched in our mind. In Roller Dreams, after the fallout from Rodney King, the active effort to control and erase a burgeoning subculture is especially pertinent. Dancers explain how Hollywood, creating cheesy roller-romances such a Roller Boogie, Skatedown USA and Xanadu would turn what was a Black American pop-culture phenomenon and rewrite it as a white thing. These were frustrating truths before, but now join a chorus of alarm bells for the dysfunctional racist society that eats America at its core.
The changes are fascinating to see documented in this manner. How sleek seventies funk transitioned into gangster rap; how Duval, a comic-book artist himself, created his own roller-skate heroic team (Hello Hollywood?); how the police started chipping away at the group. First banning amplified music; then the time to stop in the evening, until they had to rip the pavement up. Roller Dreams is about using art to pull you out from a tortured world. It’s about race, and the inequality that divides and separates us. It’s about gentrification, and how development ignores the culture of an area and replaces it instead. Roller Dreams is an utter joy to watch, and the talent on show will leave you slack-jawed. But there are deeper issues underneath, and these will linger with you long after the credits have rolled.
This was part of the London Film Festival 2017 coverage for Culturefly.
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