About eleven months before John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the newly installed Governor of Alabama gave one of the most infamous speeches in American history. In his fiery inaugural address, George Wallace, a former Attorney General and Judge declared, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” This was during the height, and at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement; the early sixties in the American South. The speech remains historic not just because of its inflammatory rhetoric, but because of the prominent position of the man who gave it. Wallace, the top government official in Alabama, felt comfortable enough to defiantly utter these words as part of his Inaugural address.
Culture is another front where the war for segregation, or against integration, has always been fought. The film "Roller Dreams," which is making its Stateside premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival, succeeds on multiple levels. It not only celebrates the roller dancing culture of eighties and nineties Venice Beach in California in spectacular fashion, but also skillfully and subtly sheds light on how American society restructures itself to maintain segregation of the races, particularly between blacks and whites. It goes without saying that the invisible hand of racism doesn’t win every battle. There are always interracial friendships and romantic relationships that defy interference. However, a cursory glance at America’s neighborhoods and schools tells us that though many battles have been won, the war still goes on.
"Roller Dreams" pops with the vibrancy and color that was nineteen-eighties Los Angeles. It is also infused with the funky, feel-good rhythms of that generation. The story of the extraordinary roller skating artists is told through classic documentary format of archival footage, interviews with the skaters from that time, and plenty of photographs.
"Roller Dreams" is an incredible historic document. The charisma of the interviewees fly off the screen and makes it abundantly clear why the roller dancing gods deemed them ambassadors of the sport during its heyday. It was also an era of hope. Says one of the interviewees, celebrated roller dancer Sally, “We really thought things would get better.”
Roller dancing on Venice Beach, the only beach the film indicates that blacks in California were really allowed to patronize, was very much racially integrated as the footage shows. Though all of the male skaters highlighted were black, the vast majority of the women were non-black and many of them were white. The feeling was very much “one love”. Sally, who is featured in the film is Middle Eastern and grew up among whites in the South. A cross between seventies era Cher and actress Selena Gomez, Sally was celebrated for her skill and style as a roller dancer as well as her possession of an ideal dancer’s body. Her teacher and eventual dance partner was the guy everyone called Mad, the veritable leader of the Venice Beach roller dancers. Tall, dark, lean, and handsome, Mad seemed sculpted from burnished mahogany. The two of them together give the impression of what must have been a striking otherworldliness for observers.
One glaring and confounding weakness of the film is the absence of black women. They are seen in the archival footage on the very margins of the action. Whites and black men are centered. Tragically, the only black woman highlighted in the film was the reportedly physically and emotionally abusive mother of one of the main subjects, Mad. One of the commentators in the film referred to what was happening at that time on Venice Beach as “black culture” so it is unfortunate that more of an effort wasn’t made to incorporate the names, voices, and faces of the black women who lived in the Venice Beach community and surely contributed to and partook in the Venice Beach roller dancing culture. In addition to Sally, the only other woman featured in "Roller Dreams" is Mad’s current wife, who appears to be of Native American Hispanic extraction.
Sally’s hope that things would improve turned out to be that of the myopic, idealistic, perhaps uninformed ilk. First, Hollywood hijacked the the culture and whitewashed its origins. Movie producers, picking up on the increasing popularity and appeal of the roller dancing scene, tried to profit from it. There was a succession of films set in the roller dancing world. However, the films cast only white actors and essentially gave the world the erroneous idea that it was a cultural phenomenon created by whites. For film lovers, the tragedy of this is perhaps further compounded by the fact that there exists a whole genre of beach movies, but none place black characters at its center when there was in fact a thriving black beach scene in real life.
This being roller dancing, music was central to the culture. As Mad points out in the film, “The music was the motivation.” The music set the energy of the interactions for skaters and encouraged the admiring wannabes on the sideline to join in the fun. As the nineties dawned, however, the music took a dark and unhelpful turn. Says Sally, the music “degenerated to almost exclusively gangsta rap.” Record industry executives promoted a type of music that the skaters, most born in the fifties and sixties were unable to naturally vibe to. Hip-hop was a rising phenomenon on its own at this time. Although there were many hip hop artists who represented the multifacity of black society, record executives increasingly promoted the records that most scared white audiences and cemented rap as a “black” genre thereby reinforcing and reflecting the de facto segregated dynamics of American society. The disco and funk to which the roller dancers traditionally danced, seemed to be universal and able to touch audiences of all races and encourage them to come together socially. The irony was that this feel good music was in fact more of a threat than rap, which evolved into what is now called hip hop. Continued criticism of traditional roller dancing music as inferior and insubstantial had a cumulative effect of helping it to fall out of favor with the public. Pop, however with its innumerable inane examples and talent challenged artists, continues to flourish. Pop also stands as a much weaker challenger to the racial status quo.
Finally, "Roller Dreams" shows the viewer the law itself stepped in to restructure the physical interactions of fans and followers of the roller dancers. It was the proverbial nail on the coffin. Skaters such as Mad found themselves repeatedly arrested and taken to jail for questionable offenses. New laws were put on the books that designated unreasonably low volumes for the music that the dancers played on the beach. It became very hard to even hear much of the music. Making matters worse, the city changed the physical structure and layout of the beach effectively making it impossible to roller dance there. The scene disappeared.
"Roller Dreams" is currently screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Find Nadine Matthews on Twitter at @deeniemedia.