On the Fast Track of Derby History

Late last year, Drew Barrymore’s Whip It was released in theaters, giving the mainstream a fictional take on the world of modern roller derby. The story, adapted from the novel Derby Girl by Shauna Cross, focuses on an outcast teen who finds confidence and her inner power by joining the banked track league of Austin, Texas. While the film is a great romp, the modern roller derby world looked at it as a mixed bag. On one hand, it brought the sport further into the public eye, but the onscreen action was far more theatrical than what you’d find on the track. I know because explaining the differences between derby fact and fiction has become a third job for me. My first is being a grad student, the second is calling games for the Boston Derby Dames under the alias “Pelvis Costello.”

If you’re unsure about where and when derby started, I’ll give you a heads up. The sport began in the United States over a century ago and evolved from a race to the finish into a contact sport and eventually into a sideshow spectacle, much like professional wrestling. Popular in the 50s and 60s, derby died out in the 70s and despite numerous reboots, it never caught on. Until now.

But gone are the days of old, when competitions had predetermined outcomes, drawn out fake fights, and bizarre gimmicks. Still, skaters wear flashy costumes and take names like “Bunnicula” and “Miss Carriage, ” so I often encounter head-scratching while assuring everyone the action is real. That said, the ladies of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) have a vision of turning this underground competition into a worldwide sport in its own right. And in a little under a decade, they’ve taken it from its carnival atmosphere and injected more and more athleticism until this hybrid monster spilled out of Texas and across North America. Fortunately, there are at least five documentary films that get the story right. The following filmmakers were there from day one, showing us how the first ladies took the flat and banked tracks with unsteady legs until they surely and steadily became the goddesses of the quad-skates they are today.

Hell On Wheels
(Bob Ray. 2008. USA. 90 min.)

In 2001, there was a void. And then Austin, Texas said, “Let there be Derby.” Director Bob Ray brings us the true tale of the Texas Roller Girls, starting from their very first practice, to a schism that nearly killed the revival in its infancy, to a glorious victory as both leagues find success, motivating women in other states to start leagues of their own.

Hell on Wheels gives us the genesis of women’s derby, when the sport straddled the line between professional wrestling and a genuine game of skill. Featured here are ladies who married the spectacle of a “penalty wheel” (which delayed game-play while skaters carried out some risqué punishment for their misconduct—watch out for “spank alley”), fake fistfights, and sexy outfits with actual athletic competition. The main thrust of the narrative comes from an organizational split over how the league should be run, resulting in not one, but two leagues that find fame and success while occupying the same city. Ray objectively shows us both sides and while the “SHE-E-O’s of Bad Girl Good Woman productions have rights to the title of “founders,” the skater-owned and operated Texas Roller Girls come out the heroes of the piece. Of all the films, this is has it all, great shots, a well-constructed narrative, and it’s fun to watch.

Blood on the Flat Track: The Rise of the Rat City Roller Girls
(Lainy Bagwell and Lacey Levitt. 2007. USA. 95 min.)

If Hell on Wheels is derby’s Book of Genesis, this film is its Exodus. Blood on the Flat Track focuses on the Rat City Roller Girls of Seattle, Washington. Only a few years into derby’s resurgence and we begin to see changes in its presentation and how the game is played. The penalty wheel, though still popular amongst some of the veterans of Rat City, is begrudgingly being sacrificed so the ladies can actively compete against one another in a sportswomanlike fashion. Fighting, when it does happen, is shown to actually hurt a team’s chances at winning. Even with a focus on athletics, Rat City attracts thousands of fans each month.

Bagwell and Levitt do their best to feature as many of the ladies as possible, going into the team structure, the history of the league, and a look into the lives of these fascinating women both on and off the flat track. “Basket Casey” steals the show by being a larger-than-life character in both bout footage and her interviews. The editing of the film is tight, with a focused narrative that only seems to lose steam during the last five minutes before Rat City takes on the flat-track founders, the Texecutioners (TXRG’s travel team), nearly defeating the women who started this whole thing in the first place. This film’s portrayal of the sport is controversial in some derby circles due to its focus on spectacle over athleticism, but it’s an accurate portrayal of the 2005-2006 seasons of the Rat City Rollers.

Not Your Momma’s Roller Derby
(Deborah Monteaux. 2009. USA. 54 min.)

Our third film trades the rainy streets of Seattle for the picturesque streets of Providence, Rhode Island. Not your Momma’s Roller Derby finds the ladies of Providence in their 2008 season. With an opening similar to the other two films, the filmmaker juxtaposes old school derby footage with more recent competition. Along with stories of how the ladies relate to one another, we get to see how a small New England city looks to this sport as a point of pride.

In addition to the obligatory founding and first bout stories, Monteaux respectfully showcases the physical punishment participants endure in order to compete, with the second half of the film beginning with a litany of injuries many of the women have suffered in playing the sport they love. Continuing the trend of Blood on the Flat Track, this movie documents more changes to derby. Gone are all staged fights and scandalous penalties for bad behavior. What takes away from the piece is its inconsistent sound quality and rough cuts, but the overall film is enjoyable.

You can watch the trailer here:

Brutal Beauty: Tales of the Rose City Rollers
(Chip Mabry. 2009. USA. 80 min.)

This is my favorite of all the films I’ve featured. The ladies of Portland, Oregon, aka Rose City, are followed throughout a season, and they work harder than they ever have to earn a sport in the Western Regional competition. The first game presented is the Guns N Rollers versus the Breakneck Betties, two of Rose City’s home teams. Watching this film, you see how modern roller derby’s gelled into an alternative sport where one can look outrageous and still be cutthroat. The ladies of Rose City hail from all walks of life, and it’s in this film that we see our first look at the “derby widows” who are the men and women married to skaters. As derby is akin to a second full-time job, spouses find themselves having to either throw their support into the league in order to get face time or expect to see their wives a heck of a lot less.

Rob Lobster, the coach of Rose City, provides us with the best explanation of roller derby’s rules—with donuts. Mabry cleverly juxtaposes skater action with the movement of the pastries in what it is both the funniest and easiest to follow rules explanation caught on film. The buildup to the final story arc makes you willing to jeer Bay Area Derby, Rose City’s hated rivals, along with the crowd when they travel to San Francisco for a rematch. All in all, it’s an excellent film.

Hugs and Brusies: The Story of the Hammer City Roller Girls
(Joe Krumins. 2010. USA. 17 min.)

Joe Krumins brings us up-to-date with his documentary short about Hamilton, Ontario’s Hammer City Roller Girls. With roller derby spanning all of North America, this is the first film that focuses on the emerging superstars of Canada. While most leagues in the States have had opening crowds of three or four hundred, we learn that 1,200 showed up for Hammer City’s opening bout.

Krumins focuses on the DIY (do-it-yourself, for those of you unfamiliar with underground music or Martha Stewart) mentality of skater-owned leagues, set to a rocking soundtrack and impressive bout footage, keep you pumped throughout the short. It would be surprising if you didn’t seek out your local league after viewing it to watch the action unfold in person. What seems to differentiate the Canadian flavor of roller derby to some of their American cousins is an awareness and aspiration to be positive role models for young girls. Not to say we Americans could care less, but Hammer City’s skaters muse on the idea of autographing a program with the name “Miss Carriage, ” while still trying to show women in a positive (and kick ass) light.

Through these films, we watch as derby exits the sea, takes its first breaths of air, and then takes off skating. Roller derby leagues often hold screenings of Hell on Wheels and Blood on the Flat Track at independent movie theaters as a marketing tool to reach more fans. As the sport continues to grow and change, the above films will stand as unbiased testaments to the hard work and sacrifices these pioneers made to bring this sport back.

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