Fifteen-year-old Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) gets into another fight at his Detroit high school and is on the verge of being expelled when his single mother decides she’s had enough. Initially, we think she’s just pissed off, but we soon come to realize she is scared for his future and his life, so he packs him and his clothes into her car and drives to North Philadelphia, where his father Harp (Idris Elba) lives, to stay with him until Cole gets his life back on track. We’re given no backstory on this fractured family, but it’s clear Cole does not like his father and had at some point in his early childhood lived with him in better times.
He finds his father hanging out at the real-life Fletcher Street Stables, where horses are rehabilitated, broken and trained by members of the community, keeping alive the tradition of Black urban cowboys that have been in the city for more than 100 years. When Cole finally does make it inside his father’s modest apartment, he’s greeted by a full-size horse standing in the living room where he is meant to sleep. It’s an image so jarring and memorable that it sets the tone for the rest of the movie—that something about this arrangement both doesn’t quite make sense but also seems perfectly natural. And that’s what Concrete Cowboy does best: use actual members of these Philadelphia stables to tell this story about helping Cole learn responsibility in the hopes that he grows up smart and stays out of trouble.
Based on the novel Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Ricky Staub (who co-wrote with Dan Walser), Concrete Cowboy is at its best when we get to simply hang out with this crew at the stables, all of whom want to help out Harp and Cole but not so much that they won’t make fun of the kid when he gets something wrong. His first job, as one might suspect, is shoveling manure, which he decides to do while wearing brand new white sneakers, which get decimated in the first day. He’s mentored by a wheelchair-bound man named Paris (a first-time actor giving one of the most memorable performances in the film, only because he feels absolutely real), riding Cole for dumb mistakes or just being too small to push a heavy wheelbarrow up a steep ramp. But Cole is inspired by this treatment because to walk away wouldn’t be manly.
Also on hand is a local police officer played by Cliff “Method Man” Smith, who used to be an urban cowboy himself but got tired of spending his own money to take care of horses with no payoff in the end. He sympathizes with his old crew and gives them ample warning to keep their horses and stables clean and healthy for fear of health inspectors or animal control stepping in. Cole begins hanging out with an old childhood friend named Smush (Jharrel Jerome), who has fallen in with a local drug dealer and attempts to bring Cole into this very dangerous game. Those scenes are a little more familiar and less interesting than what’s going on around the stables, but they seem necessary to understand what Cole’s parents are up against in terms of the elements of the world that may hurt their son.
McLaughlin and Elba completely sell their characters as being a part of this community, to the point where it’s easy to forget that Elba is a megastar, and we see him as just one of this crew (he’s also a producer on the film, as is Lee Daniels). Concrete Cowboy took me completely by surprise, and I found it thoroughly engaging, authentic, a great learning experience about this culture, and even inspirational. It hasn’t happened much in the last year, but when a film you’ve never heard of suddenly appears on your radar and wins you over in the span of just a couple of days, that counts for something.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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