Movie Review: Concrete Cowboy
By Matthew Huntley
April 10, 2021
“Concrete Cowboy” tells another one of those coming-of-age stories about a misguided youth who’s uprooted from his place of origin and put on a path of self-sufficiency and manual labor in hopes he’ll be set straight and simultaneously learn a few valuable life lessons. Although we’ve seen this tale take many shapes and forms in the cinema ("The Karate Kid,” “Boyz n the Hood,” “Save the Last Dance”), to this film’s credit, it’s not entirely just “another one of those stories.” “Concrete Cowboy” buoys its familiar structure with novel material, a raw and energetic presentation, and strong, nuanced performances. Even though it’s not surprising or groundbreaking, the film is engaging and heartfelt, even educational, and it earns its emotion and our admiration.
Based on Greg Neri’s 2013 young adult novel, “Ghetto Cowboy” (I’m guessing the studio changed “Ghetto” to “Concrete” to avoid the derogatory connotation now associated with the former term), the story is basic but promising: Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) is a troubled, disobedient high schooler who’s prone to fights and now faces expulsion. His mother (Liz Priestly) is at her wit’s end and feels she has no other choice but to pack Cole’s bags and make the long trek from their home city of Detroit to a rundown section of Philadelphia, where she forcefully but regrettably drops Cole off in front of his estranged father’s apartment, which sits on a dark, uninviting street littered with trash and where every other unit’s windows are boarded up.
Obviously, this is not where Cole wants to be and we immediately gain a sense of the dread, fear and anxiety that overcome him when he realizes his mother means business. This is no joke. He’s messed up one too many times and he must now face the consequences.
Making matters worse is Cole barely knows his father, Harp (Idris Elba). When he first finds him around the corner, Harp is smoking, drinking and sitting around a bonfire with the other locals, who all don traditional cowboy gear. Collectively, these men and women make up the Fletcher Street Riders, who, in real-life, would be members of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, a non-profit organization in North Philly that seeks to preserve and promote the lifestyle of Black urban cowboys, who have been a part of the city’s history for over a hundred years. Just as it’s the mission of Harp and his friends in “Concrete Cowboy,” the FSURC wants to educate people, particularly young Black people, on the value of horsemanship and the skills, pride and camaraderie it cultivates.
We don’t learn much about the real FSURC until the end of “Concrete Cowboy” and I could envision co-writer and director Ricky Staub making an equally engaging, if not more so, documentary about the organization itself to complement “Concrete Cowboy.” For now, though, we get the traditional Hollywood narrative, which suffices.
Fortunately, even if the real FSURC didn’t exist, Staub’s screenplay, which he penned with Dan Walser, still makes the concept of Black urban cowboys and cowgirls credible. This is important because, at first, I hesitated to even believe horse breeders, racers, and instructors could sustain themselves working in and maintaining the Fletcher Street Stables, which are packed into the middle of a dense, inner-city area. And when Cole discovers Harp keeps an actual horse inside his own dumpy apartment, I thought I was watching a sitcom.
But once the film proves it will take both its premise and characters seriously, we feel encouraged to do the same. This makes the obligatory plot developments and overt aphorisms feel less forced, and while the script sometimes make it too easy to predict what will ultimately transpire with regard to the story and characters, we appreciate the movie’s messages about hard work, caring for things and people other than yourself, and, perhaps most importantly, how crucial it is to feel cared for, especially when you’re young and feeling lost.
The plot centers on two main conflicts, neither of which is especially original given the setup and genre, but even so, the cast breathes fresh life into them. One involves Cole’s rocky and evolving relationship with Harp, which he must balance while becoming part of the Black cowboys’ fight to keep their stables, which are drawing complaints and threats from the surrounding neighborhoods because of the smell and others messes they make. Leroy (Method Man) is a local police officer who tells them their time is limited, but that doesn’t dissuade Harp and his crew from carrying on with their day to day work and bestowing their knowledge onto the doubtful Cole.
Harp’s faithful followers include the sage, no-nonsense Nessie (Lorraine Toussaint); the young, effulgent Esha (Ivannah-Mercedes); the boastful Rome (Byron Bowers); and the wheelchair-confined but experienced Paris (Jamil Prattis). Each plays a role in Cole’s transformation from lazy ne’er-do-well to confident horse owner.
Running in parallel with Cole’s horse indoctrination is another personal and hard-hitting subplot. Smush (Jharrel Jerome) is Cole’s childhood friend who now peddles drugs for a local gangster (Michael Ta’Bon), but to Cole’s surprise and ours, Smush’s illegitimate day job is but a means to a more legitimate lifestyle. His real dream is to buy his own farmland and run a rural stable so that he might enjoy the peace and silence that comes from working for yourself and being outdoors among animals. When Smush reveals this ambition to Cole, his character gains an extra dimension we weren’t expecting.
Though the entire cast is strong and convincing, McLaughlin and Jerome are particularly effective. While the two actors are best known for their work on a pair of Netflix series, with McLaughlin being a regular on “Stranger Things” and Jerome winning an Emmy for his powerful work in “When They See Us,” both prove they have the range and chops to become important actors in other material.
Without giving details, there are at least two notable scenes during which Cole and Smush must process the shock, fear and anxiety that accompany traumatic events that are all too common for Black youth who live in dangerous cities. Staub allows the camera to simply hold on McLaughlin and Jerome’s faces as their characters respond to what just transpired. We watch them intently as they think, breathe and let their heart rates come down, doing as much as we can to empathize. It’s scenes such as these that elevate “Concrete Cowboy” from something we initially thought standard to something more significant and memorable.
The film’s look and presentation are also noteworthy, both for their dynamism and restraint. Minka Farthing-Kohl’s cinematography, Timothy W. Stevens production design, and Christopher Redmon’s art direction collectively create an unromantic yet still striking Philadelphia. Even though it was shot on location, Staub and his crew avoid merely capturing the city’s major tourist spots (The Philadelphia Museum of Art with the Rocky statue out in front; Independence National Historical Park; Liberty Bell Center, etc.). Instead, they show us the raw, authentic, gritty back streets, as well as the remote, abandoned areas we like to pretend don’t exist.
As Cole observes and absorbs his new surroundings, both up close and from afar while sitting in Smush’s car, we get an idea of how overwhelming Philly is for him, and how scary, lonely, fast and slow it can be, all at once. It speaks to the filmmakers’ technical prowess that the production creates a constant unease and tension that Cole must learn to wade and bear. His journey isn’t an easy one and the movie makes that clear.
While the overall outcome of “Concrete Cowboy” seems preordained, the film gains power and a tighter hold on us as it moves along. And despite Staub and Walser’s script speaking blatant language meant to mirror the hero’s formation and trajectory—“Hard things come before good things”; “Horses ain’t the only thing that need breaking around here”; “Home ain’t a place. It’s a fam.”—they still render as wise and profound. In fact, one dictum still resonating with me is, “You don’t have to get out to grow up.” Such a line may seem trite on paper, but what’s special about “Concrete Cowboy” is its ability to take things we might have deemed stock and artificial, not to mention unbelievable, and make them sincere.