Movie Review ~ Concrete Cowboy

The Facts:

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

Rated: R

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.

Movie Review ~ Selah and the Spades

The Facts

Synopsis: Five factions run the underground life of Haldwell School, a prestigious east coast boarding school. At the head of the most powerful faction – The Spades – sits Selah Summers, walking the fine line between being feared and loved.

Stars: Lovie Simone, Celeste O’Connor, Jharrel Jerome, Gina Torres, Jesse Williams

Director: Tayarisha Poe

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I suppose it’s a natural feeling to be excited about what we know.  When I was in high school, I devoured anything about that high school experience.  Books, TV, movies, music, plays…anything.  It wasn’t escapist entertainment; I enjoyed my high school quite a lot so I wasn’t looking for something better but I was interested in what it was like seen through the eyes/ears/prose of another.  Those same feelings have continued through to adulthood and I know this isn’t some unique revelation because I’m fairly sure that’s how we’re supposed to relate as we age.  Heck, I recently watched Four Weddings and a Funeral for the first time since 1994 and I appreciate it so much more in 2020 because now as opposed to then I’ve actually BEEN to a wedding and a funeral.

To that end, I find it harder and harder to take movies in a high school setting because I feel so far removed from that world and too often the filmmakers paint the students as nothing more than authority bucking party monsters.  Instead of young rebels without a compelling cause, I crave either more authentic depictions or perhaps those that have a tad more bite to them.  Plenty of streaming services offer intriguing options and indie film isn’t short on offerings that skew to the abstract (hello Knives + Skin) but it’s been a while since someone found the right balance.

Though it doesn’t always land on its feet, Amazon Prime’s Selah and the Spades comes awful close to a bulls-eye and that’s thanks to a kinetic energy pulsating throughout.  Starting with a dynamite leading performance and filtering down through the cinematography, writing, and music, this is a movie that speaks to the here and now and isn’t attempting to remain timeless.  In remaining focused, it allows the characters to have a particularly strong voice and amps up their narrative to create something well worth spending some time on.

There’s a neat little introduction to the five cliques that rule the hallways of the Haldwell School at the opening of Selah and the Spades.  It’s here the film shows off the bat it has a sense of humor with a sharp edge to it and you better be prepared to keep up with its pace.  Each groups serves a particular population of the student body but to hear the voice-over narration tell it, you’d think these were crime families watching out for their own.  Sitting squarely at the top of the heap are the Spades, governed with respected imperiousness by senior Selah (Lovie Simone, an absolute revelation who has a part in the upcoming remake of The Craft) with assistance from her trusted right-hand man Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome, Moonlight).

Self-possessed and always focused on the end goal, Selah works to keep her group strong even when rumors of a turncoat are raised just as she is about to pass on her torch to the next generation of underclassmen.  Under consideration for taking over is new student Paloma (Celeste O’Connor, Ghostbusters: Afterlife) who is quickly befriended by Selah not so much because of her potential but for how much Selah can mold her into the leader she wants her to be.  As you can expect, forces outside and inside the Spades act to create situations that challenge Selah over the dwindling months before graduation.

It’s nice to find an original script like Selah and the Spades because I could easily have seen this one being adapted from a popular YA novel but writer/director Tayarisha Poe has clearly given a lot of thought to how each character moves throughout the film.  While I would have liked there to be more to all of our central characters than what is onscreen, with the limited time we have Poe wisely sticks to the important beats.  Only Selah is afforded more depth, explaining some of her control issues during a tense visit home with her severe mother (Gina Torres) who recites a familiar story with a cold acidity.

I don’t know how much Haldwell School reflects the current state of affairs in high school but no matter, I left Selah and the Spades once again glad that I am not a teenager.  The pressures they are under are great and the choices they make have bigger consequences than when I was their age.  Even if there are times when Selah drifts into dark Heathers territory, it’s the more realistic it gets that are the most scary sequences.