Among the things to enjoy in Concrete Cowboy are the pleasures of seeing Idris Elba as an urban horseback rider, the chance to learn about the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, and watching a community bond over the history of the black cowboy. Due to the way Hollywood rewrites or erases history, just hearing, once again, how the Lone Ranger was almost certainly inspired by the legendary black deputy U.S marshal, Bass Reeves, is enough to credit this film with attempting to dispel certain ideas, let alone shine a light on the good an equestrian cause can add to life. Even with an overall familiar story, Concrete Cowboy brings a lot of value to the film world.
Based in part on Greg Neri’s novel, “Ghetto Cowboy,” Stranger Things’ Caleb McLaughlin star as 15-year-old Cole, a kid from Detroit who has gotten himself in enough trouble to have his mom leave him with his estranged father in Philadelphia, for the summer. Cole’s father is Harp (Elba), a key member of the ‘Fletcher Street’ club, as in one who owns and tends horses. The adolescent resistance to Harp’s ways is expected, as Cole initially prefers meeting up with his childhood friend Smush (Jharrel Jerome), who will be running up against the exact dangers Cole’s mom wants her son to avoid.
Concrete Cowboys plays out as a coming-of-age drama that wants to balance a father-son story with the perils of irresponsible friends. It adds some western themes and visuals to go on top of it too. Regardless of how predictable the arc of this story is, a film focused on an urban horse-riding community is not exactly a setting an audience runs across all of the time. Even those who are aware of the presence of black cowboys in the middle of cities at times tend to lack a context as to why. This is where the film shines.
The ideals of the actual ‘Fletcher Street’ involve community outreach for the prevention of crime, using equestrian activities as a way to mentor kids. The film even features actual members of the club, who waver in acting experience, reminding me of Chloe Zhao’s The Rider. It’s not so much about how much talent they bring to screen, but hearing the stories they share adds to the depth that’s present in this community. One character who can’t walk but is still able to ride explains how he’s arrived at this station in life, and one has to believe it’s a true story.
Understanding how this neighborhood functions speaks well to the way authority responds to their activities. Clifford “Method Man” Smith has a small but important role as Leroy, a local sheriff who is a part of the community. The interactions he has with Harp and the others let the film show a real reason as to why police should actually know the area they protect and serve, so they can make a difference.
While Concrete Cowboy hits some tropes a bit too hard to really make a clean statement about all that is going on in 2020, it is these areas where the themes, lessons, and ideas serve the film well. I’d go as far as to say it’s a feature a somewhat broad audience can appreciate (it’s not rated as of yet, but language and some violence would be the main concerns for those curious).
Additionally, for a film set in the city, first-time director Ricky Staub does a lot with his locations. Shot in North Philadelphia, whether taking in the neighborhood streets, the nearby parks, or even the sewers, Staub and cinematographer Minka-Farthing-Kohl do a lot to depict an area filled with beauty. Thanks to timing the lighting just right and working with heroic shots that indeed call to mind classic western heroes, this film finds the balance between urban drama and something with a more majestic appeal.
For an independent film that found a way to create a unique spectacle out of black urban cowboys, Concrete Cowboy pulls off something quite endearing. The character work is strong, with Elba and especially McLaughlin putting in a great effort. While familiar, the story does what is needed to make its ideas heard. Given the continued relevance of what urban teens (particularly young black men) can do to keep themselves in a good place, that message remains vital. And really, the inherent cool Elba brings as a black cowboy already works in the film’s favor, so it’s just a good thing he’s able to help highlight the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club as well.