2021, R, 111 mins.
Idris Elba as Harp / Caleb McLaughlin as Cole / Jharrel Jerome as Smush / Byron Bowers as Rome / Lorraine Toussaint as Nessi / Method Man as Leroy / Jamil "Mil" Prattis as Paris / Ivannah Mercedes as Esha / Liz Priestley as Amahle / Michael Ta'Bon as Jalen / Devenie Young as Trena / Albert C. Lynch, Jr. as AlDirected by Ricky Staub / Written by Staub and Dan Walser
Netlfix's CONCRETE COWBOY is a modern day urban western that taps into and utilizes familiar genre conventions while also subverting them to their core.
the directorial debut of Ricky Staub and adapted from the novel
GHETTO COWBOY by Greg Neri, the film and source material find inspiration
in the real life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, a group comprised of
African American horse riders in Philadelphia.
Featuring real members of the group alongside such seasoned
performance vets like the great Idris Elba, CONCRETE COWBOY sometimes
attains the spontaneous look and feel of a documentary on its subject,
which frequently helps to overcome some of the staleness of its estranged
fathers and sons/coming of age story conventions.
The finest aspect of this film, though, is how is sheds crucial
light on the relative whitewashing of western dramas over the last century
and how there are new avenues to explore in showing the black perspective.
Early on we meet
Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), who lives in the rougher areas of Detroit and
seems like a constant thorn in the sides of his high school teachers and
principal. His mother has had
just enough of his penchant for undisciplined behavior both inside and
outside of school, so she decides to take him - largely against his will -
to Philadelphia to stay the summer with his father, Harp (Elba), who just
so happens to be the leader of the Fletcher Street Stables community,
which helps troubled members embrace the cowboy lifestyle as a form of
therapy. Cole vehemently
cries foul, seeing as he wants to have nothing to do with his absentee
father, and definitely doesn't want to be left in the middle of nowhere
when his mom drops him off and drives off.
As Cole tries to make nice and reacquaint himself with Harp, he
slowly becomes embraced by the many souls of the neighborhood that do
remember him from back in the day.
When Cole finally
does come in contact with Harp he's mixing things up with his buddies by a
roaring trash can fire, sharing stories of the glory days of their youth.
Everything seems quaint with Harp's cowboying ways, but a legal
threat looms with the presence of a local cop (Method Man), who gives him
and his community members warnings regarding the conditions of their
stables. Cole has other chance meetings with Paris (Jamil Prattis), a
no-nonsense supervisor, and Esha (Ivannah Mercedes), who serves as a
community rider/trainer to the newbs.
The most crucial reunion that Cole has is with his cousin, Smuch (Jharrel
Jerome), who seems deeply entrenched in drug dealing and will unavoidably
serve as a very negative influence on the already troubled Cole.
Will he turn to a life of crime with his cousin or stick it out
with his dad and merry band of roughnecks to clean out stables and tend to
his horses? Shoveling
horse shit, to be fair, seems far less glamorous than the potential life
of riches that Smuch offers him.
least, CONCRETE COWBOY seems like the product of multiple genres sort of
mushed arbitrarily in a bowl in hopes that they flow smoothly together.
Obviously, the film is steeped in western archetypes, but it's also
an urban drama, a classic tale of long separated fathers and sons being
reunited, a sobering take on at-risk teens and drug running culture...and
so on and so on. Oh, and it's also a story of the nurturing bond between boy
and horse. Let's not forget
that. To be fair, CONCRETE COWBOY
doesn't deserve accolades for originality.
It's pretty easy to see the plot trajectory of this film from a
mile away, not to mention that the core conflicts presented within seem
aggressively telegraphed. Cole
has two choices: Stay with his dad, work grueling manual labor in sprucing
up his stables and learning the ways of a real urban cowboy or take
the drearier and more dangerous path of becoming Smush's sidekick in the
drug pedaling racket. It soon
becomes readily apparent where the story beats are traversing, not to
mention that you know - you just know - that things will simply
not work out for Cole's thug cousin in the long run and that the appeal of
redemption via a father and a horse will win the day.
That's not to
say, however, that CONCRETE COWBOYS doesn't work well outside of its
preordained screenwriting that covers well worn paths.
The core premise of the film is gangbusters good in the manner that
it explores the little seen (and probably never heard of by many,
including myself) microcosm of black cowboys that have been populating
Philadelphia streets for over a century in one form or another (Staub was
reportedly inspired to make this film when he saw one of the urban cowboys
on horseback in North Phillie and then researched the Fletcher Street
gang). One overwhelming image
that this film tackles head on is the notion of all on-screen cowboys
being, well, white. CONCRETE
COWBOY wisely understands and proposes that there's not only an untold
aspect of the past (and recent) history of cowboy subculture, but that
there are also aspects of the African American experience that haven't
been remotely touched in contemporary film.
Staub's rookie effort may not be a traditional western, per se, but
its rooted in its very traditions. It
looks from the inside out for inspiration to tell new stories within the
ageless genre, which makes it feel fresh and is to its credit.
Even when the
plot delves into contrived territory, CONCRETE COWBOY nevertheless nails
the little observational details of these city dwelling cowboys.
Harp's squad and their way of life feels so fully and authentically
realized as a place both familiar, yet far removed from modern society.
One of the threats that constantly comes to the forefront is the
idea that this unique and centuries old culture could cease to survive at
any time due to city and business forces wanting to shut them down, and
what a shame that would be. These
horsemen and cowpokes could be driven to extinction by the very fact of
their long-term existence, which further taps into the larger discussion
of the marginalization and oppression of African Americans in multiple
facets of American life and history.
There's a thematic ambitiousness to this material and its targets,
especially for how it not only comments on the larger troubled history of
whitewashed western genre iconography, but also how modern black people
still struggle to maintain a way of life today, and in a seldom viewed
aspect of that culture.