Synopsis: Sent to live with his estranged father for the summer, a rebellious teen finds kinship in a tight-knit Philadelphia community of Black cowboys.
Stars: Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin, Jharrel Jerome, Byron Bowers, Lorraine Toussaint, Method Man, Jamil “Mil” Prattis, Ivannah Mercede,s Liz Priestley, Michael Ta’Bon, Devenie Young, Albert C. Lynch, Jr.
Director: Ricky Staub
Running Length: 111 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: It wasn’t that long ago when many thought Idris Elba was overlooked for an Oscar nomination for his role in Beasts of No Nation, a film released by Netflix globally shortly after it had a small theatrical release to qualify it for award contention. This was 2015 when Netflix was still not considered a “movie studio” and the war-themed Beasts of No Nation, though well-reviewed, bore the brunt of an unfair bias against the streaming service which left it and a number of its actors out in the cold come Oscar nomination morning. This was particularly outrageous because Elba had been nominated (or won) at nearly every other awards body that season…clearly The Academy wasn’t ready to chill with Netflix quite yet.
Now, we all know what has happened in the years since then where Netflix was concerned and now that the subscription site is a viable player I half expected a film like Concrete Cowboy to be held until later in 2021 when it could have generated a little more buzz for its star. Though not the be-all, end-all of uplifting inner-city dramas, this is still an exceedingly well crafted feature with another standout performance from Elba that only serves to remind everyone that he’s a star of the most underappreciated variety. Add to that a valuable look inside the too little talked about urban African American horse-riding culture in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Concrete Cowboy becomes a film worth discussing and promoting.
Detroit high-schooler Cole (Caleb McLaughlin, High Flying Bird) has just been expelled from another school for fighting and his fed-up mother has come to the conclusion that works for her because she’s through with finding a solution that meets his needs. Driving through the night, she deposits him on the front steps of his father’s house in Philadelphia, says her good-byes, and leaves. It’s the only way to take the tough love message for her son (and, though we don’t know it yet), her son’s father to it’s full extent. Though he barely remembers his dad, he does vaguely remember the neighborhood and Nessie (Lorraine Toussaint, The Glorias) the woman across the street who points him in the direction of where he can find his father who is rarely at home.
Discovering his dad sitting around a campfire of sorts with a bunch of other cowboy-hat wearing weary souls, all Cole wants to do is call his mom and go home. We can’t quite tell if Harp (Elba, Prometheus) was expecting Cole that night or if he’d been expecting Cole to show up eventually due to his troubles, but either way the reunion isn’t one of instant joy. Neither is up for small talk that night or the next morning and though Cole’s attempts at returning to Detroit fail, he tries any and all alternative arrangements to avoid living with the father he doesn’t know or understand. Harp spends his days down the block and around the corner at one of the last inner-city stables that house horses, part of the Fletcher Street riders. It’s more than just taking care of horses in the dilapidated stables and attempting to keep city officials from closing them down to make way for new residential space, it’s the preservation of a culture that is slowly being decimated after being winnowed down through the decades.
Between hanging out with his old friend from the block Smush (Jharrel Jerome, Selah and the Spades) who soon gets Cole up to his neck in dangerous business, Cole begins to learn the ways of the stables not from Harp but from the men and women who work there, including real-life Fletcher Street riders Ivannah Mercedes, Michael Upshur, Jamil “Mil” Prattis, and Albert C. Lynch Jr. Writer/director Ricky Staub adapts Greg Neri’s 2011 book Ghetto Cowboy with screenwriter Dan Walser and mostly keeps the melodrama out of the way of the strong actors and surprisingly strong non-actors who fill the screen with their engaging presence. Though it starts to fall into predictable beats as it winds toward the conclusion and follows a well-worn path instead of blazing its own trail, it ultimately succeeds on the strength of the emotions it stirs within and that’s thanks to the characters created.
While Elba creates that strong aura from the start, he’s got some competition from McLaughlin as a simmering Cole. You can see the anger and frustration within McLaughlin’s character from the start and feel what his untethered youth must be going through, struggling to find his way forward without any true confidence yet. He’s all emotion and no restraint and that comes out in ways that do damage to his relationship with both parents. I’ve liked McLaughlin ever since season 1 of Stranger Things and he’s consistently the best of the child actors on that show, he continues that impressive range here. There’s also good work (as always) from Toussaint as a longtime neighbor familiar with Harp and Cole’s complicated past but knowing how to keep her distance and from Philadelphia actor Liz Priestley as Cole’s mother. Originally written as a drug addict, the role was reconceived as an overworked nurse at the end of her rope after Priestly’s impressive audition. Toussaint is also gifted with several of the film’s enlightening moments detailing the history of the black cowboy over time and how the country has sought to erase them from the record books. Aside from the two women, there are powerful passages from real life members of the Fletcher Street riders both in the film and throughout the credits that drive home how real these real people are.
Sure, Concrete Cowboy may cover some familiar ground and you’ll be able to call the ending long before it arrives but there’s a real propulsion Staub, Elba, McLaughlin, and the rest of the crew find fairly early on and hold on to longer than expected. It’s so engaging, in fact, that I almost wish Netflix would keep this movie in mind if they ever wanted to expand it into a series. I think this would be a perfect project to explore as a limited series of one or two seasons to give us a little bit longer to know these people and the environment they live in. After spending two hours with them, I’m ready to hop in the saddle for many more.