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"N-Men: The Untold Story": Indie Documentary on Skating Crew Shreds


Is there a place in pop culture for more than one documentary on skateboarding? You may think that you had your fill back in the early Aughts, when Stacy Peralta’s “Dogtown and Z-Boys” (2001) made the rounds through film festivals, conquering the Holy Trinity of Indie Movie Awards: Winner of Best Documentary at Sundance, AFI Fest, and the Independent Spirit Awards. A few years later, Catherine Hardwicke, fresh off the success of “Thirteen” (2003), directed “Lords of Dogtown” (2005) based on a script by Peralta - who happens to be a veteran skater. The fictional version was not a hit, but now it holds the sad distinction of being one of the few films of the late, lamented actor Heath Ledger.

The truth is that there is a place for more movies about the skateboarding culture. Its footprint in culture goes beyond cinema. If you don't believe me, think of how many Vans shows you've owned in your lifetime. This quintessentially Californian pastime evolved from being a pastime for outcast kids to being recognized as an Olympic sport. Issues of class, gender, and race roll around it, distilled through the personal stories of countless athletes and amateurs. Like many other human endeavors, you can use it as a prism to look at how we live now. And how we lived then.

“N-Men: The Untold Story” is James Martin Sweigert’s labor of love, a documentary that seeks out the figures that belonged to a particular group of skateboarders - the “N” stands for Northern California, in opposition to the Southern Z-Boys. Sweigert is a skateboarder - a card-carrying member of the Sierra Wave Skateboard Park in Sacramento, to be more exact - so he has a natural curiosity for the subject, deep knowledge of the culture, and closeness to some of the characters portrayed. Still, this exercise in nostalgia does not come by easily. According to the movie’s official website, film production took 11 years, during which the director tracked down archival material and important characters on the scene.

The efforts were rewarded with an embarrassment of riches. He found amateur photographer Bill Golding, who documented the exploits of his contemporaries in fantastic still images. We get to see amazing footage in what looks like an 8-mm film of the young skateboarders cruising the empty pools and backyard ramps of Sacramento, chasing the ultimate incline to perform death-defying tricks. The images become poignant when you alternate these golden Californian boys with their contemporary selves, well into middle age. The group includes founders Don Bostick, Steve Brockway, Danny Grady, John O’Shei, and Rich Maile. The passing of time may be the underlying subject of “N-Men: The Untold Story.” Sweigert takes us to many events where these dads show they can still roll. In one of the most gratifying episodes, Jamie Hart shares how, at 59 years old, he won his first world championship in Downhill Slalom.  

Yes, downhill slalom, like the Olympic ski competition. The time capsule opens up to register the commodification of the past time, from the ascent of the X-Games in the ‘80s to the rise of the skate & snowboarders to the Olympic pantheon. You’ll have to dig into the images to follow how a nascent sport becomes a business as its practitioners strive to make a living and keep doing what they love. Mind you, there is no shame in that. It’s the way the world works. And it’s very interesting to see it develop in front of our eyes as the silent backdrop to an eminently humane story.

The proceedings have a good dose of self-mythologizing, but you can't fault Sweigert and his subjects. After all, this sport defined their identity and their lives. The movie goes into some unexpected narrative complications when it tries to build a narrative arc from the relationship between John O'Shai and Doug Jones. Jones's appearance is built up throughout the movie's first third through verbal references and archival material. Everybody agrees the imposing, muscular black man was their youth's best, most fearless skateboarder. And the one who lived more dangerously. Nobody gives many details, but after 30 years of him being MIA, they all agree he is either dead or in jail.

Sweigert sets out to do what nobody else did and tracks Jones. He reunites him with John O'Shai, who seems to be the friend from the past with whom he was the closest. It's had to write about it without spoiling the most dramatic events in the movie. And yet, we must risk doing so because this is where "N-Men: The Untold Story" serves its most poignant turn and does itself a narrative disservice. Without interviewing the filmmaker, it's hard to understand the reasoning behind his choices. It must be sufficient to say that this looks like a textbook lesson on how closeness to a documentary's subjects can compromise a movie's success.

It's not that Sweigert must satisfy morbid curiosity. The script sets up this relationship as the emotional core, springs an unexpected development as a surprise twist, and fails to follow through with basic explanations. What happened exactly, and why? We don't know, and Sweigert is not telling. Maybe this is a matter of respecting the boundaries of a subject and/or loved ones, but if that is the case, it's best not to build the movie's denouement around the information you can't share. Discretion becomes coyness, and the film suffers.

"We were loners who formed a group of loners."

Your skate buddies can be the family you never had, but sometimes, not even the people who love you the most can save you from yourself. Besides this half-told chapter, the movie’s contemplation of the risks of skateboarding is reduced to a short montage of people falling spectacularly and the occasional image of shirtless dudes with scratches that take a good part of their arms and torsos. I’m glad there are no catastrophic accidents, or we don’t hear anything about them. Maybe my ignorance about sports makes me assume it is more dangerous than what it is. Overall, the tone of the movie is celebratory. In a sport that overflows with testosterone, we get some screen time with female pioneer Judi Oyama and new generation champion Catherine Folsom. ‘90s stars like Tony Hawk - representing the generation that struck when skateboarding entered the mainstream via X-Games and MTV - come around to honor their elders.

“N-Men: The Untold Story” is at its most compelling in an unassuming way when it paints a picture of the time and place when skateboarding culture bloomed in California. It told me things I did not know, like how a historical drought accounted for the large number of empty pools that beckoned the young skaters to polish their mad rolling skills. The enthusiasm of the talking heads on camera is infectious. And there is an undercurrent of melancholy in the idea that they built a community around skating because they did not have another place to go. The feeling is familiar, even if you can’t last on a skateboard for a second. This is how we connect through sport, art, and the time we share with each other.

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