Concrete Cowboy (streaming on Netflix) does something I always value highly; it shows me a world I have never seen onscreen before. I love when movies take me places I have never been (and will likely never go in real life). It introduces viewers to modern day cowboys in North Philadelphia. With a stable right in the city, they ride around the streets, preserving a way of life that is slowly disappearing. Though, that is only half of the story it tells.
Concrete Cowboy also shows me a world I have seen onscreen many, many, times before. It is the story of a young man from Detroit, seemingly destined for a bad end, who gets sent back to live with his father, in the hopes that he can be straightened out. Of course, the teenager is caught between the instant gratification of being a drug-dealer (as personified by a childhood friend) and the challenges of being a cowboy. The latter is what makes this worth watching. The former is what makes it less interesting than it could have been.
Cole keeps getting in fights at school, so his mother packs his things in garbage bags, drives him to Philadelphia and drops him off in front of the house of his father, a member of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club. Harp wastes no time giving his son a choice: he can stay and work in the stables or he can fend for himself with his drug dealer friend, Smush. These two different lifestyles competing for his attention motivate Cole to figure out what kind of man he wants to become.
There are a lot of movies about black teenagers forced to choose between the flashy drug game and an outlet that could give them the ability to avoid that dangerous path (it is usually sports or music; in the case of the 2020 drama Charm City Kings, it was dirt-bike riding). In that way, Concrete Cowboy is quite familiar. What allows it to stand out is the detail and respect it gives to its cowboys. These are men and women who have dedicated themselves to something that takes a lot of hard work for not a lot of financial payoff, in a place that would prefer them to be gone. Still, they wouldn’t give it up for anything. The scenes where Cole talks to these people, does the work and learns about this life are fascinating. Everything else just treads way too well-worn ground.
The screenplay (by director Ricky Staub and Dan Walser) is based on the 2011 book Ghetto Cowboy by Gregory Neri, itself inspired by the real life black urban cowboys of North Philadelphia. Similar to the recent Nomadland, it surrounds some very good actors with people who truly live the life depicted here, playing versions of themselves.
Idris Elba is effective as Harp; he has a couple of powerful, quiet, conversations where he tries to get through to Cole. Yet the scenes I expect will stick with me are the ones where Cole gets shown the ropes by Paris, is the recipient of tenderness from Esha or attempts to break a wild horse. Both Paris and Esha are played by real members of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, Jamil Prattis and Ivannah-Mercedes, who provide a strong air of realism in those roles. The other significant element in this regard are the horses. This being a fictionalized production, I have no idea what is real and what isn’t. But the shots of horses trotting down the streets of Philadelphia are breathtaking and break through the clichés holding the movie back.
Concrete Cowboy mixes a very good movie with an okay one, creating a good movie with moments of greatness and a few boring stretches. With stuff like this, my mind tends to get to work with a little selective editing in the months/years after I have seen it. I may forget about Cole’s adventures with Smush, but I doubt I will forget things such as Harp explaining the origins of Cole’s name, Paris training Cole to shovel horse manure or a group of black cowboys riding through Philadelphia as bystanders look on in awe. However, even in this form, that material is enough for a solid recommendation.
3¼ out of 5
Caleb McLaughlin as Cole
Idris Elba as Harp
Jharrel Jerome as Smush
Lorraine Toussaint as Nessie
Method Man as Leroy
Ivannah-Mercedes as Esha
Jamil Prattis as Paris
Byron Bowers as Rome
Directed by Ricky Staub
Written by Ricky Staub and Dan Walser