Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin in Concrete Cowboy

M, 111 Minutes


3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury




Thanks to the timeless western set on the American frontier, horses have a hallowed place in the movies. This urban tale set in the stables run by a Black community in a large American city, puts a twist in the tail.

The real-life backstory to this film is the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club in the city of Philadelphia. It isn’t some quirky new fad either, and exists in other American cities as well.

The Fletcher Street club has been going for over a century, from the early days of the automobile, when some African American communities elected to hang on to their horses instead. Men and women are members of this club today, and some appear as themselves in this fiction feature, Concrete Cowboy.

Though far from the frontier and deep in the inner city, there are moments of sublime visual beauty

Young adult fiction author, Gregory Neri, was inspired by this unusual Philly equestrian institution to pen the book, Ghetto Cowboy, on which it is based. It is a redemption story combined with coming of age.

Detroit teenager Cole (Caleb McLaughlin in a winning performance) is sent away to work on himself. After he gets involved in yet another fight and is threatened with expulsion from school, his exasperated mother drives him to Philly where she drops him off at his estranged dad’s. Over to you, Harp, he’s yours for the summer.

Harp is played by British actor and one of the film’s producers, Idris Elba, who consistently exudes an easy kind of masculine confidence. His character has little inclination to play Dad but is, however, an active member of the Fletcher Street equestrian club.

Prospects at Cole’s new home don’t look too promising. The place is a shambles. There is nothing decent to eat or drink in the fridge and Harp is a heavy smoker. And a horse lives on the ground floor of the house, the space that Cole is expected to share.

Cole is stuck. He begins to feel he would like to ride but he has to take his turn at cleaning out the stables first. This involves a balancing act behind a wheelbarrow full of dung that has to be pushed up a narrow plank into a waiting skip.

Then the drug-dealer cousin who he used to hang out with,  Smush (Jharrel Jerome), presents a more attractive alternative. Cole takes up with him in no time at all.

Despite this, and although far from the frontier and deep in the inner city, Concrete Cowboy presents many moments of sublime visual beauty. There are many scenes that doff their hat to the western with its languid pacing and haunting instrumentation.

It is director Ricky Staub’s first feature, a heartfelt story. If only there were more to this beautifully photographed and strongly acted piece.

Co-written with Dan Walser, Straub’s screenplay is not unaffecting, but it is under-written. It works well enough for a young audience but the unexamined characters and trajectory confine it to the YA demographic.

Despite a Jaime Foxx here and Sidney Poitier there, American popular culture has made little reference to the Black cowboy

Cinematography by Minka Farthing-Kohl is something else, however, from the close-ups to the kinetic chase scenes, to the wide shots in the cavernous, post-industrial infrastructure. A high-toned aesthetic has become a frequent marker for Netflix originals like this.

The distinctive Philly accents and delivery are difficult to follow at times. Every now and then, I was wondering about sub-titles, but events are easy to follow.

It is always wonderful to experience the western movie iconography paraded on screen. The haunting, desolate flute on the soundtrack, the men on horseback – women here too – their westerner outfits topped with hats. Here most Stetson hats are white, except for the one worn by the Black cop.

Concrete Cowboy is, of course, about reclaiming culture. There were plenty of Black American cowboys in the late 19th century, probably around a quarter of all cowboys in the US were African-American. There have been some docos made about them, but besides a Jaime Foxx here and Sidney Poitier there, popular culture has made little reference to them.

And in this Black Lives Matter moment, it sends a shiver down the spine to hear Harp say that he is always looking over his shoulder, and feels like he was born with a boot on his neck.

Understandably, Concrete Cowboy wants to recover lost history, lost dignity and inspire Black American youth. This is clear. It’s just that the mythologising would have worked way more powerfully if there was some more to this long but beautiful produced feature.

First published in the Canberra Times on 18 April 2021