A film review by Craig J. Koban April 28, 2021


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 Al

Directed 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.  

Showcasing 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. 



Initially at 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.   

CONCRETE COWBOY may not be wholly successful as a genre mishmash and strives to achieve greatness only to fall short, but it's still an important and worthwhile film to look at.  The coming of age troupes, as mentioned, are too methodically laid out and lack true inspiration, but the performances contained here all breathe newfound life into well worn material and characters, with the always excellent and commanding Elba (also serving as producer) having a grizzled and more world weary presence here than we're accustomed to, but he still manages to exude smooth talking charisma and stature that has typified his career.  He's matched well by his co-star in McLaughlin, who crafts a totally credible presence and layered performance as his at-risk adolescent.  Jerome as well is superb at injecting some nuance into what could have been a one-note hoodlum part.  And let's not forget about the many non-actors that appear here too (some from the actual Fletcher Street posse) to lend some instant verisimilitude to the material.  As a drama of tough father love, the healing power of animals, and overcoming the dark allure of drug/gangster culture, CONCRETE COWBOYS is kind of perfunctory throughout and dutifully goes through the motions.  As a sobering portrait of a faction of black culture that's been left untold by movies of the past and present, the film is equal parts uplifting, eye opening, and intoxicating. 

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