Do yourself a favor and watch Minding the Gap, the documentary by Bing Liu about his skateboarding buddies from Rust Belt Illinois and their stepping into (and out of) adulthood. Your reasons for not watching this skateboarders’ documentary are exactly why you should watch this skateboarders’ documentary. It is about skateboarding, and it’s about friendship, love, race, class, masculinity, family, and violence.
It’s on Hulu right now, which is where I watched it with gratitude that the same subscription bringing us escapist sitcoms and NBA games also serves up some media that actually feels like a medium… a conduit between lives that I wouldn’t otherwise feel nearness and empathic connection with.
The thing everyone says about this film is that it’s about skateboarding but it’s not about skateboarding. I think there’s something to how we perceive skateboarding— particularly skateboarding that’s being filmed— that screams all the reasons certain segments of “us” don’t want to pay any attention to certain segments of “them.” Skateboarders, if you aren’t one, obnoxiously shred up ledges, fly through our same sidewalks and public spaces with reckless, child-threatening speed, and generally carry an affect of total disregard of you for the sake of their thrills. And when a camera is involved… oh, you better believe I’m not interested in hanging around with those guys and what they’re up to. I’ll be over here, protecting my daughter as she rides her bike.
It’s exactly because of that distance– the separation from our assumptions– that skateboarding itself is integral to this story’s power for us viewers on the other side. Because Bing Liu, the documentarian, cinematographer, fellow skater, and friend of subjects Kiere and Zack, is also able to gently show through his camera what they run from when they flee to their skateboards, why they might find such release from coasting on the open road or grinding the city or landing an inconceivable leap.
And what they skate from is the stuff of American lives in the mid-2010s, especially that part of the country that feels most distant from my West Coast, Silicon Valley surroundings. Economic insecurity. Generational violence. The sense of narrowing opportunities in post-industrial middle America.
For me, it was especially intriguing to meet Liu, who puts himself, his family troubles, and his mother in the documentary alongside the skating friends he grows up with and depicts. He is not voyeuristic about others’ pain. He is there as well, part of the painful subjects in question. But his documentarian’s tone is searching, compassionate, willing to probe uncomfortably but unwilling to look away at his subjects’ humanity, even as he does not shy from their dark sides. Liu renders them, and himself, with a wondrous kind of observer’s eye. It’s not static, it moves as the subjects move, and it is ready to for a crash. But it’s also ready for the bracing beauty of people coasting along, trying to find their way to peace, to wholeness, to the freedom of the wind.