If you live in a large- or medium-sized American city, chances are there’s a women’s roller derby league near you. In the past decade, women across the United States (and in several foreign countries, too) have joined forces to bring back the campy fun of roller derby, and with dozens of leagues now flourishing, it would not be an overstatement to say that this revival has grown into a serious women’s movement.
Bob Ray’s documentary Hell On Wheels tells the behind-the-scenes story of how the rebirth of roller derby happened in Austin, TX in the early part of the decade. It’s a compelling tale of four women who start a league from the ground up based on DIY principles, a punk aesthetic, and a belief that women can create businesses — in this case Bad Girl, Good Woman Productions — without the help of men. The film concentrates on these women’s struggles as they get the league up and rolling, then captures the subsequent leadership controversy that leads many of the original leagues’ players to breakaway and start a competing league.
Throughout, Ray highlights the women’s own stories, and what emerges is a complicated brand of feminism that combines sexuality, athleticism, and a punk attitude. It's clear that this new generation of roller derby initially attracted a number of women in Austin who didn’t feel like they fit into society’s typical niches, but who nevertheless wanted to belong to something bigger than themselves. Ray pays close attention to both the mental and physical strain of starting a women’s roller derby league. Injuries and fights are sprinkled throughout, and in one of the film’s key scenes, the camera captures a strong player suffering a compound fracture.
Stylistically, the film is no-nonsense, combining informal interviews with grainy footage of early practices and league meetings. The camera is literally present for many of the key discussions and disagreements in the early days, allowing us to get a full sense of the motivations and personalities of key members. Shots of Austin’s skyline and sound clips of Austin band …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead provide a sort of epic backdrop that complements the energy and sweat that goes into the making of roller derby. At times, however, the film moves a little too quickly through its plot twists -- it would have been nice to know more about the business end of the league’s development or to see more lengthy sequences of actual jams. You could watch the movie and still not fully understand how roller derby works or how a team earns points. Yet Hell On Wheels succeeds in providing a real-time glimpse into the emergence of a compelling subculture that has since turned into a hugely successful phenomenon, no small feat.
I got my first taste of roller derby last year, when I saw the Hotrod Honeys, led by Cat Trastophe and Pain Jane, and The Hustlers, with Curvette and Aretha Spankin’, part of the Texas Rollergirls flat track league. Hundreds of fans had turned out to drink Lone Star pounders, eat Frito Pie, watch a local band during intermission, and see some hot derby action. If you have attended any jams, then you likely understand the down-and-dirty appeal of this new generation of roller derby. If you haven’t, get thee to your local track immediately.