By James Langley
The excellence of mid90s, Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, may surprise those who have followed the actor’s career so far.
Unlike many films in which Hill has starred, mid90s is neither crass, tasteless nor puerile. Instead it is mature, poignant and almost entirely lacking in cliches as it follows a gang of skaters in mid-nineties Los Angeles.
Skating is an integral aspect of the journey to adulthood for outsiders Stevie, Ray, Fuckshit, Ruben and Fourth Grade. Each skates to escape the realities of traumatic home lives.
Hill’s genius may lie in communicating the continuing appeal of skating for anyone, regardless of their background, or the decade in which they live. His subject matter allows him to demonstrate a hitherto hidden softer side.
Brighton in 2019 may initially bear little resemblance to mid-nineties Los Angeles, but head down to the Level on a sunny afternoon and it seems as if many of Hill’s characters have sprung from the screen to perform their tricks across the gum-studded park.
The brands worn by the skaters gliding around the ramps may have changed from Menace and Droors to Palace and Supreme, but the sense of rebellious fun captured by Hill is still apparent.
A keen skater since early childhood, Henry Bailey believes the Level is the heart of the Brighton skate community.
“The Level’s always the meeting spot where we go back to after skating in the street. The Level is an interesting place, there’s some crazy characters down there,” he says.
Bailey moved to Brighton from Chichester five years ago to study journalism at the University of Sussex. Since graduating he has worked at Level Skateboards, the skate shop on the corner of the park around which much of the local scene revolves.
Bailey likes where he works. “A local skate shop is a rare thing to find these days, so this is where everyone meets up.”
Today the shop is empty, as all the usual customers are out enjoying the weather, but a more typical afternoon for Bailey sees the cramped showroom full of his friends, hanging out and discussing skating.
Though it is an exceptionally warm April day (the hottest of the year so far) Bailey wears a woolly beanie and a thick checked shirt.
For him, personal style is an integral aspect of being part of the skate scene. “There’s no rules, you can do what you want. You can wear what you want, you can skate how you want.”
Bailey has founded a magazine called Journal, detailing the skate scene on the south coast. It features photos of locals skating in all kinds of places, often where such activities are forbidden, as well as celebrating the activities of skaters beyond the world of the board.
The Level is not the only place to skate in Brighton. “The Level’s where everyone meets, but we try and skate round the streets when we can. Street skating’s a lot better.”
Bailey is proud of his community: “A lot of skaters are really good at art, a lot are in bands.”
And the Brighton scene is making waves in the wider world. Bailey mentions a number of skaters in Brighton who have gone professional, which is the ultimate aim of Hill’s protagonist Ray.
“Dan Fisher’s just gone Adidas, Harrison’s killing it, like all the local kids. They’ve been killing it for a long time so it’s got a really strong scene.”
But there is a schism within the global world of skateboarding. Skateboarding will be an event at the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020, a far cry from its origins as a rebellious subculture.
Where once skaters were those let down and left behind by society, they may soon find themselves as part of the sporting establishment. Their sport will be scored on a points based system, which Bailey finds difficult to comprehend.
“Style is more important than tricks, and you can’t really judge style because it’s personal preference.”
For many, the whole idea of competitive skateboarding in the Olympics is antithetical to what prompted them to take up skating – just wanting to have fun.
Bailey says “It’s more of a lifestyle. It’s more of an art than a sport.”
Fellow skater Ghaleb Rahim concurs. For him, having fun was more important than anything else.
“I like going fast, I like anything that builds a sense of flow, and I love things where you can have flair and skill.”
He says he skates, “Not because it’s subversive or illegal, but just because being able to turn mediocre things into fun things is a great feeling. So things like finding an empty spot where you can hit a rail, or finding a sloped wall that’s just right to do fun shit on is addictive.”
Rahim also prefers street skating to skating at designated parks.
“With street skating, being able to turn otherwise completely innocuous urban spaces into spaces for your own creativity is a sick feeling.”
Though skateboarding is typically thought a male activity, Bailey claims that in Brighton the scene is becoming ever more diverse.
“Brighton’s got a massive girl scene going on. This is the main place for girls skateboarding in England.”
The Brighton Youth Centre indoor skatepark even has a female-only night every Thursday. This is a far cry from the almost exclusively male scene in Hill’s mid90s, which features startling displays of homophobia and misogyny.
For some, though, the local skate park can still be intimidating.
Today, there are no girls skating at the Level. Freddie Christie, a former student at the University of Sussex who skates only occasionally, says of the scene: “As an outsider, skating around town, especially at first, seemed quite an intimidating culture to tap into.”
The sheer number of skaters at the Level, all of whom seem to know each other and to have a particular brand of street style, can be overwhelming.
Bailey rejects any such suggestion. “Brighton especially, it’s like a big family.”
He is fiercely protective and deeply proud of a scene he has made his own.
“It’s just about doing your thing. Team sports never worked out for me. I feel like you can be yourself when you skate.”
Skating may no longer represent the anguished howl of a generation abandoned by the establishment as it does in the Los Angeles of mid90s, but the passing years seem only to have strengthened some skaters’ commitment to their chosen lifestyle.
They continue to fly the flag for rebels everywhere.