In the new Netflix film Concrete Cowboy, black urban cowboys have lived in Northern Philidelphia for many decades. It’s the type of scenario that feels so obscure that it must be fictional, but this community does exist. Director Ricky Staub ensures he includes real-life Fletcher Street cowboys, like the recent Nomadland, allowing them to share their stories with the camera.
The fictional story at the heart of this film features the coming-of-age journey of Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), forced to live with his father, Harp (Idris Elba), one of the leaders of this unique community. It’s a fish-out-of-water scenario that pays off as Cole not only comes to understand his new surroundings, which include living in a house with a horse but is also caught between two worlds that offer him divergent possibilities. Yet authenticity is challenged by a heavy-handed approach to capturing the action. The utilization of go-pros and stomach-churning hand-held technique doesn’t totally work.
Nonetheless, Concrete Cowboy handles its emotions delicately, and Caleb McLaughlin confirms that he is a star in the making. He carries internalized resentments as he tries to stabilize his new environment. McLaughlin convincingly, and often heartbreakingly, conveys this young man’s struggle to find his place and walk a new path.
Cole, who lives in Detroit, is expelled from school, and his mother, at her absolute wits ends, decides to drop him at his father’s place in Northern Philadelphia. She has tried everything, but he will drown in the life he creates for himself, so she’s removing him from the situation. She parks outside his father Harp’s place unloads his two garbage bags of clothes into the street and drives off as Cole pleads for her to reconsider.
The street is empty, save for Harp’s neighbor Nessie (a brilliant Lorraine Toussaint) sitting on her porch watching the scene unfold. She calls Cole over, looks him up and down, and recognizes the young man who left the community when he was a boy. She directs the devastated Cole around the corner to the stables, ‘You’ll smell him when you get close.” His father, Harp, sits around a flaming trash can with his brothers and sisters, and he rises in his cowboy hat and loose denim jeans to greet Cole. When they arrive at his home, Cole is stunned to find a horse living there. The next day, Cole determinedly tries to find an alternative situation and is reacquainted with his old friend Smush (Jharrel Jerome), who gives Cole a look into drug dealing. Cole might be stuck in this community, but there are ways he can escape.
The screenplay was written by Staub and Dan Walser, based on the novel Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri. Unsurprisingly, the film is littered with tender moments that inform relationship dynamics and showcase the community’s attachment to horses. Determined not to go home, Cole accidentally stumbles into the stall of a wild horse Boo. Later, when Boo escapes, Cole is tasked with reining him because of their connection. When he eventually mounts the horse, it’s a beautiful moment as Cole rides, and Harp looks on with pride. But it’s not all fun and games. There is tons of horse shit to collect and sawdust to disperse. Amusingly, the metaphor is not lost on any of the characters who remind Cole that he is the one who is being broken in.
We also meet real-life Fletcher Street members who litter the cast, like Paris (Jamil Prattis), who supervises Cole’s manure accumulation. There’s also Esha (Ivannah Mercedes), who flirts with Cole and offers additional support. Interestingly, Smush was also a rider but fell into a life that brought him to the wrong people. Cole and Smush have a beautiful understanding when Smush reveals why he is dealing drugs. It helps contextualize the relationship and brings the young men closer to finding a way out. But as Esha maintains, you don’t have to leave the community to grow up.
This becomes clear in the scenes between Elba and McLaughlin, who are exceptionally well-matched. After Harp helps Paris ride a horse again after an accident that left him in a wheelchair, an upset Cole races home because he can’t understand why Harp wants to help everyone but him. As he packs his belongings, McLaughlin’s cracking voice asks Harp, ‘Why you hate me, man?” Elba’s monologue about how Cole got his name is sincere and filled with regret. It’s a powerful scene that highlights the gravity of their relationship, and it’s performed with absolute honesty.
But the community doesn’t exist without danger. Neighbors complain about the stables’ smell, a dead horse remains in a stall uncollected, and the city is looking to remove the situation. Horses have always existed in this city area, but like Smush, many believe the stables have expired. Yet the history of the cowboys is unique and continues today. As a family rides the bus through Northern Philadelphia, they are amazed to see a group of horses steered by their riders. They rise in the saddles as the horses gallop beside the bus, illuminating the intersection between a rich riding history and a present-day gentrification landscape that is diluting a beautiful culture.
The stables haven’t expired; they’re thriving.