Review: ‘Concrete Cowboy’ lacks the charisma of the real Black Philadelphia horsemen
The first feature film from Philadelphia director Ricky Staub, “Concrete Cowboy” charts familiar territory in its story of a young Black boy figured within the stale trope of having to choose between “a life of crime” and what we may refer to as more societally acceptable interests. Adapted from author G. Neri’s YA novel “Ghetto Cowboys,” the boy in question here is Cole (“Stranger Things”’ Caleb McLaughlin), who, upon being expelled from his Detroit school for fighting with his peers, is sent to live with his father, Harp (Idris Elba), for the summer. The interest, as is surely evident by the film’s title, is horsemanship; more specifically, the vibrant Black cowboy community in North Philly.
The relationship between Harp, a longtime cowboy, and Cole is clearly strained, however “Concrete Cowboy” doesn’t seem too interested in explicating why exactly that is. It has a similar mindedness for the friendship between Cole and his cousin Smush (“Moonlight”s Jharrel Jerome), who, despite having been close childhood friends with Cole, is realized here largely in moral relief more than he is expanded as a character in his own right. Smush, a former rider, now works for a local dealer from whom he is stealing profits and is quick to take Cole under his wing, despite Harp’s protestations.
In many ways, the film too easily leans into the disposability of a character like Smush and doesn’t seem to question why that may be. Smush’s fate is fixed from the moment he appears onscreen; his capacity is flattened into serving as the moral wake-up call for Cole and the lived reminder not to follow in the footsteps of Harp, who once upon a time lived a life similar to Smush’s. It is a form of identification that will leave a bad taste in the mouths of viewers looking for a nuanced and contemporary depiction of inner-city Black boyhood and which likewise underscores the reliably commonplace vision of the film as a whole.
What matters instead, for Staub, is the horses and their riders. The film’s boilerplate redemption narrative is given the backseat treatment as we instead are given over to the past and present community history of the Fletcher Street Stables, a real-life Black horsemanship community active for more than 100 years. It is undoubtedly the film’s stronger narrative tine and made all the more so for its reliance on real-life Fletcher Street riders that all but upstage the film’s stars with their charisma and unexpected onscreen agility.
This is why it’s all the more curious that “Concrete Cowboy” takes the form of rote drama rather than documentary. Staub has clearly established a rapport with the community, having enjoyed a proximity to its people and space for two years ahead of shooting, and is certainly aware of the need for autonomy and self-determination in terms of the voices highlighted here (as well as the oft-forgotten history of Black cowboys in America at large). These are the very reasons why one is given to wonder what it is exactly that the filmmaker himself lends to this film other than a completely ordinary commercial veneer.
Rated: R, for language throughout, drug use and some violence
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: Available on Netflix