There is something very familiar about Netflix release Concrete Cowboy and yet the experience of watching it is something unique unto itself. Starring Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin (Stranger Things), the film is based on the novel Ghetto Cowboy, which tells a fictionalised account of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, a real-life horse stable in the middle of an urban Philadelphia neighbourhood.
The story begins with Cole (McLaughlin) being expelled from another school. His mother, at her wits end, resorts to one desperate bid at putting him on the straight and narrow and she drives him to Philly, where she leaves him on the doorstep of his estranged father, Harp (Elba). Harp is an urban cowboy and spends his time at a community stable with a group of friends, each of whom break in horses. Amongst the crime-riddled streets, where gangs rule the corners and trouble has a way of finding young people, the stable – in turn – has a way of providing hope to those who need it most.
Concrete Cowboy has an immediate resemblance to John Singleton’s iconic Boyz n the Hood and it follows a similar trajectory. It is an all too habitual narrative that informs so many African American stories throughout cinema, which is obviously a damning reflection of American society and a systemic culture.
Cole’s story has him arrive in Philadelphia as an obnoxious teenager full of attitude and a sense of entitlement. Reluctant to engage with the local community, he finds comfort riding shotgun with a childhood friend who cruises the streets making drug deals. It isn’t long before the realities of a thug life put him in immediate danger, and with the counter lifestyle of the cowboy way right around the corner, he has to choose between a life of easy spoils with serious consequence, or a life of hard work and personal fulfilment.
If you’ve seen any number of coming of age “hood” films, you may find that Concrete Cowboy plays out in somewhat familiar fashion, but what you may not anticipate are the various nuances and revelations along the way. The film is, at its heart, a father-and-son story, but it is also a snapshot of a forgotten (or unknown) aspect of Black America. The Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club is not only an integral community service, but it also preserves a history steeped in black equestrian heritage that goes so far as to rebuke the origin of the “cowboy” term itself. And with this informative backdrop, first-time feature director Ricky Staub captures an unusual culture with the upmost sincerity and lets the peculiarity and contrast of its imagery convey a multitude of messages – the strongest of which being themes of father absence.
Elba, who previously rocked the cowboy look in The Dark Tower, makes for a natural choice to lead the film. He adopts many of the mannerisms previously conveyed by Laurence Fishburne in Boyz and presents the gruff and stoic persona that is required to usher his young co-star’s performance along.
McLaughlin is excellent as Cole, and his overall character arc is well paced. With each evolution of his story, he taps into his character’s various points of development with considered care and understanding. The point that Cole’s personality has evolved to by the film’s end is much more realistic and less “Hollywood” than is often depicted on screen; we leave on less of a formulaic growth point than audiences may have come to expect. With that said, if we align that end point with when we first meet him, the juxtaposition is remarkable.
Rarely does Hollywood put black people on horses, let alone depict them as cowboys in the middle of an inner-city sprawl, and yet here we are, and it’s wonderful. It’s not tokenism or gimmickry either, and as proven in a wonderful final moment, it is very much a real aspect of Philadelphia’s story. Who’d ‘av’ known, right?
‘Concrete Cowboy’ is now streaming on Netflix. Watch it HERE.