Growing up, young boys always had the image that a cowboy is a gun-toting, boot-wearing, white man. While historians have estimated that one in four cowboys were African American. They are rarely ever depicted as a man of color. The depiction of black cowboys on the big screen have been few and far between. In the past few decades we have seen a small surge depicted in the movies, as seen in films like Tarantino’s best film “Django Unchained”, “The Magnificent Seven” (Denzel Washington remake) or Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece “Unforgiven”. These films among others are important to help disrupt the Hollywood idea of the cowboy always being a heroic white man.
You can add the new Netflix film “Concrete Cowboy” to that list of films aforementioned films. What makes “Concrete Cowboy”, all the more powerful is that it’s based on a true story and adapted from Greg Neri’s 2011 book “Ghetto Cowboy”. The feature length writing and directing debut of Ricky Staub, sheds a light on a subculture that not many knew existed. Where black cowboys exist in the cities, ride horses in the streets and run stables right there on city blocks. Black riding clubs have existed for decades, all in cities such as Baltimore, Houston and Oakland.
The western genre is typically defined by the vast and stretching landscapes in a 19th century America. But Netflix’s “Concrete Cowboy” is an excellent modern western set in the streets of Philadelphia, as Staub’s film is based on the real life Fletcher Street Stables of North Philadelphia. The heroes of this story are no John Wayne or Clint Eastwood but black Americans just trying to keep alive a tradition that’s not discussed much. Strain gives us a sweeping experience and finds a way to combine the poetic imagery of the American West with the grit and struggle of the urban cities.
“Concrete Cowboy” not only becomes a work of magnificent shots and images. There’s also the brilliant casting of Idris Elba (also the films producer), who looks worthy of a John Ford or Sam Peckinpah movie, mounted on his horse with his grandiose rugged looks. Elba is tailored for the films gorgeously photographed rich images. No surprise that he looks great on horseback riding in the sunset hour, under the lights of the city or in the cover of the rain.
“Concrete Cowboy” made it’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and is now being distributed by Netflix. Producing alongside star Idris Elba is filmmaker Lee Daniels, who brought us “The Butler” and “Precious”. It’s director and co-writer Ricky Staub, who deserves a lot of recognition here in doing a terrific job of creating a very specific sense of a group of people and the place that surrounds them. Although it can be a slow burning drama that will sometimes leave it’s meandering pace to test the patience of some viewers. But when it kicks into gear or explodes into violence, the scenes can really pack a punch.
“Concrete Cowboy” sees 15-year-old Cole (Caleb McLaughlin of “Stranger Things”) getting into yet another fight at school in Detroit, where his exasperated mother (Liz Priestly) sends him to Philadelphia to live with his father Harp (Idris Elba), whom he hasn’t seen in years. Toting his belongings in two garbage bags, Cole feels as if he’s landed on another planet when he enters his father’s ramshackle house and learns that he’ll be sharing space with a real live temperamental horse.
Turns out Coleman father is the unofficial leader of the Fletcher Street Stables, a tightly knit, generation-spanning group of male and female Black riders who live to ride and ride to live, with many of them owing their life to the club. That if it were not for the club they would have succumbed to the temptations of the streets and been in jail or dead by now. Nearly every night, the group sits in a circle, drinking beers and telling tales about the history of the black cowboy in America, Hollywood’s white-washing and the calm days of riding right there on the streets of Philadelphia.
This is where Staub’s film has it’s biggest problems by becoming that cliched and ordinary coming of age sentimental story. Because of course, Cole thinks this whole horse thing is crazy, of course we see Harp putting him to work shoveling manure in the stables and of course Cole will eventually strike up a special bond with a wild young horse who will listen only to Cole.
Like most relationships like Harp and Cole’s, there is a awkwardness and distance between them at first. Cole takes up with his cousin, a former Fletcher Street rider named Smush (Jharrel Jerome from “When They See Us”), who is mixed up in some heavy stuff involving drugs, guns and a local gang leader. For much of the film, Cole is torn between the two worlds. Gradually, he comes to understand and appreciate and embrace the riding life and because “Concrete Cowboy” goes for the predictable, of course there’s even a potential romance in the making for Cole with a pretty young rider named Esha (played by Ivannah Mercedes, who is a real-life rider).
The sight of Idris Elba sporting a cowboy hat, pink bandana, yellow gloves and an unbuttoned denim shirt will be enough for the ladies and man crushes. Elba backs it up with a convincing, charismatic, nuanced, powerfully understated performance. Elba and McLaughlin make for a plausible father and son match. The two share a beautifully played scene where Harp plays a John Coltrane record for Cole and explains that’s where Cole’s name comes from. Disappointingly Staub doesn’t do much to flesh out Cole as a character beyond his feelings of abandonment. While McClaughlin does an admirable job in the role, there’s simply not much to Cole for us to take much interest in, other than his connection to his father.
In the supporting roles, Rapper and actor Method Man turns in strong supporting work as a rider turned local cop who remains sympathetic to the club. While real-life Fletcher Street cowboy Jamil “Mil” Prattis steals the show and is remarkably good as a rider in a wheelchair who becomes a mentor to Cole.
Where “Concrete Cowboy” reaches it’s peaks is within Harp’s story and the cowboys he surrounds himself with. Their stories are so rich with history that you could listen to them talk for hours. But unfortunately Staub washes them out to focus on Cole’s coming of age story and the connection of father and son. When Staub does focus on the lives of the black cowboys, he treats the subculture with the utmost care and giving the world of the Fletcher Street Stables a rich and textured feel.
Staub succeeds in doing that by casting some of the real Fletcher Street urban cowboys in key roles and drawing on their stories to make his film adaptation feel rich, authentic and lived-in. The real individuals all help give the film the texture of real life, though cinematographer Minka Farthing-Kohl also does a superb job in playing with lights and shadows to give the film that moody drama feel.
Netflix’s “Concrete Cowboy” tries to explore the culture of the Black “urban cowboys” who have populated North Philadelphia for the past 100 years. I’ll be one to admit that I would have preferred a documentary about the urban cowboys instead. I came away discovering a world that I never knew of and that has been right under our noses all along. But I didn’t feel as inspired as I did when I was watching the credits of the real life cowboys being interviewed. If anything, director Ricky Staub’s fictional feature serves as merely a worthwhile introduction.
Staub leaves you wanting to learn more about these modern day frontiersmen and caring less about the bland coming of age story. While Idris Elba rides tall and handsome in a fascinating urban western. I won’t be surprised if a documentary is headed out way soon enough. I’ll be pleased if that did happen, because then “Concrete Cowboy” would work better viewed as a companion to the documentary. “Concrete Cowboy” isn’t a complete home run for Staub, but still a more than promising directorial debut.
GRADE: ★★★☆☆ (3 out of 5)