Cowboys are deeply embedded in American popular culture. After all, the Western genre dominated Hollywood box offices for years. Films like Once Upon A Time in the West and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly have become the standard for idyllic versions of the heroic cattle-header. Though his legacy stretches from the streets of South Central LA to North Philadelphia, the Black cowboy has been erased from the history books. However, with his coming-age-story, Concrete Cowboy, first-time feature filmmaker Ricky Staub is unveiling an underworld often overlooked while highlighting a young teen’s fragile road to manhood.
Based on Greg Neri’s novel, Ghetto Cowboy — Concrete Cowboy follows Cole (a gripping Caleb McLaughlin), a teen boy living in Detroit with his single mother. Terrified for her son’s life and out of options following yet another school expulsion, Cole’s mother packs his clothing in garbage bags and drives the near 600 miles from Detroit to Philly.
In ‘Concrete Cowboy’ Cole confronts the father he’s never known
Cole arrives in the city after dusk. Dropped off in a neighborhood he left more than a decade earlier without a phone or money; he’s no longer the rebellious teen wearing a mask of anger. Instead, he’s terrified and forced to face his father, Harp (Idris Elba), a man he’s never known.
A sanitation worker by trade, Harp seems ambivalent about Cole. Ill-prepared for his son’s arrival, Harp’s home has fallen into disrepair. His roommate is a massive horse, illegally parked in his living room, which also houses the dilapidated couch Cole is expected to sleep on. From the moment we meet Harp, it’s clear, horses and nothing else are his life.
‘Concrete Cowboy’ is a typical coming of age drama
Beautiful shot amid a Philly summer, Concrete Cowboy is mostly typical of what one would find in a coming-of-age drama, Harp is unyielding with Cole. The salt-and-pepper haired cowboy makes it clear that this new situation comes with rules. They include Cole taking on manual labor at Harp’s second home, the Fletcher Street Stables.
In addition to Harp, the typical motley crew hangs around the stables giving Cole life lessons. Leroy (Method Man) is a cowboy turned sheriff with his eyes on the streets. Nessie (Lorraine Toussaint), one of the only women in the crew constantly prays for all of the boys in the neighborhood. Then there’s Paris (newcomer Jamil Prattis), who teaches Cole the ends and outs of cleaning the stables and caring for the horses.
Concrete Cowboy would almost be too formulaic had it not been for Smush (astounding Emmy-winner Jharrel Jerome). A childhood friend of Cole’s, Smush comes thundering onto the scene full of charm and with a cavalier attitude about life. Though Cole is drawn to Smush’s familiarity and masterplan to escape North Philly, he becomes increasingly wary of his old friend’s drug dealing, even though it does afford him a new pair of Jordan sneakers and a certain level of access. Still, as thrilled as Cole is to connect with Smush again, he seems to understand that this won’t end well. For boys like Smush, it never does.
‘Concrete Cowboy’ doesn’t have quite enough at stake
There are beautiful scenes in Concrete Cowboy, a heart-wrenching scene between Harp and Cole when the father tells his son the origins of his name. There’s also a powerful display of Cole taming Boo, a skittish horse, and painful revelations between Smush and Cole.
Yet, with such a stacked cast and compelling backdrop, the narrative doesn’t have quite enough at stake here. Cole is learning to become a man, Smush’s time is running out, and the Fletcher Street Stables are at risk because of gentrification. However, Harp and Cole never truly bond, and we don’t quite understand Cole’s motive for acting out in the first place.
Still, the acting, representation, history lessons on Black cowboys, and the snapshot of majestic horses on narrow Philadelphia streets make Concrete Cowboy a worthwhile adventure.
Concrete Cowboy was reviewed for the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.
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