Concrete Cowboy is a Netflix drama directed by Ricky Staub. It centers around a fictionalized version of Philadelphia’s Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club. The film stars Idris Elba, Lorraine Toussaint, Method Man and Stranger Things’ Caleb McLaughlin as Cole. A troubled teen from Detroit who has to live with his father after his mother runs out of options. The film is based on the novel Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri. This film does an excellent job portraying the lives of Black cowboys living in the modern day. And all the systemic struggles that come with it.
This movie reminded me of an Old West film. So like an Old West film, I’ll give you The Good, The Bad, and not The Ugly, but The Factual.
Concrete Cowboy is a raw slice of life/coming of age film. Caleb McLaughlin carries a youthful but stoic energy as Cole. Leaving behind the prepubescence of Lucas and tackling an issue a bit more prevalent to Black men than interdimensional creatures. Idris Elba makes his presence felt as Harp, Cole’s estranged father. Who takes on the task of raising his son after being away from him for over a decade. The film shows how the right community can shape a young Black child to move throughout life with purpose. With a mix of some tough love combined and genuine understanding. I didn’t expect anyone to mollycoddle Cole (he scoops horse shit all day). So when the tender moments came, I appreciated them even more.
Liz Priestly shines as Amahle, Cole’s mother. She fluidly reflects the frustration of a Black mother who is trying her best to raise her son right without the proper community around him necessary for his growth. She’s barely in the film, but she absolutely owns every scene she’s in.
Lorraine Toussaint delivers as Nessie, the village elder who gives Cole gems of wisdom but doesn’t coddle him. None of the women do that in this film. It’s a nice change of pace to see Black women in this film love Black men from a safe distance. At one point in the film, Cole leaves his father’s place out of frustration, but neither his female cousin nor Nessie will allow him into their homes. It’s refreshing to see Black women establish boundaries for Black men, especially young Black men. Black women are always the first and last people to love Black men, but we usually only see the unconditional side of that love. It’s commonplace in Black dramas to see the overly forgiving love that allows men to be toxic. The noticeable absence of that trope is a refreshing change of pace.
Jharell Jerome (When They See Us, Selah And The Spades) brings life to the film as the brotherly Smush, Cole’s childhood friend he reunites with while in Philly. Upon first glance, Smush appears to be the stereotypical bad influence that Cole has to overcome to grow up truly. However, the film reveals him to be much more nuanced, something you can’t help but appreciate as we go on. Jerome being able to show us his acting range makes those moments even better.
- Caleb McLaughlin tries his best, but is not very convincing as Cole. And that’s not fully on him, to be honest. The movie says at the beginning he’s this tough kid who is always getting into fights, but it doesn’t really show that. Oftentimes we just him sitting with a sullen look on his face. The first time he talks back to his mother his voice is very squeaky. He doesn’t read as a volatile kid to me. When his mother leaves him, I don’t feel the desperation, I don’t feel the shock. The emotion just isn’t there for me.
- I appreciate the gravitas Idris gives to the role of Harp, but his accent takes me out of the story at times. Having native Philadelphians in the main cast is both a gift and a curse, because it’s very obvious who’s from the neighborhood and who’s from Hollywood.
- Having Esha as a love interest for Cole feels very forced. Her character doesn’t have the depth to warrant a romantic connection between the two of them. It’s time we move past the idea that kids going through their journey of self-realization need the reward of partnership being dangled at the end.
- It turns out that Jamil Prattis, who plays the disabled rider Paris in the film, isn’t actually disabled. *SPOILER* There’s a scene where Harp helps Paris back onto a horse for the first time since being paralyzed in an ordeal that killed his brother. The scene lacks weight, and having a disabled actor play him would’ve made a world of difference. Prattis is an actual member of the FSURC, and he did lose his brother. I feel like that was enough to work with for a redemption arc instead of having an abled person play a disabled role.
- Lastly, Method Man is fine. Method Man slays any role he’s in. But seeing rappers playing cops is tiring. That shit burns me to my core.
It’s not often that we see an environment like this portrayed in the film, a close-knit community of black cowboys in Philadelphia. I love that Staub made it a point to include real Fletcher Street riders in the film. Esha’s Ivannah-Mercedes and Paris’ Jamil Prattis are two of the real Philadelphia cowboys brought on for the film. The community of Black cowboys originated in the early 1900s when Black Southerners moved up north for jobs. As time went on and horses were no longer the main source of transportation in America, the Black riders hold onto their own, and fight gentrification. Protecting them and other horses from certain death.
When the riders are sitting around the campfire, they tell stories about how Hollywood erased the identities of Black cowboys for years, while in real life gentrifiers encroach on land that they’ve been living on for generations.
The Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club is a real-life nonprofit organization founded in North Philadelphia in 2004 by Ellis Ferrell to provide horsemanship experience to the inner city. However, according to a Harper’s Bazaar article,
“Just months into the club’s founding, its Brewerytown stables were seized through eminent domain. That’s when the club decided to create makeshift stables on the Fletcher Street lot. However, after an anonymous tip, the SPCA raided the club’s corrals and its petting zoo, which were then bulldozed by the city—a devastating blow to the youth in the community that essentially forced the team to start all over from ground zero again.”
Philadelphia riders face displacement by outside threats on a daily basis. Concrete Cowboy does a great job of amplifying their voices.
Concrete Cowboy is a great slice of life film that shines a light on a subset of Black American culture that rarely gets the attention it deserves. It’s a story about hard work, family, tradition and self-realization. There are times in life when you think you can’t fall any lower until the floor gives out under you. But you gotta be thankful for the hands that reach out to pull you up.
Like Harp says, “You wanna ride a horse? You gotta work the stables.”
If you’d like to donate to The Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, click the link to their GoFundMe here: Fundraiser by Ellis Ferrell : Help FSURC Get Back In The saddle! (gofundme.com)