In the picture

April 11, 2021

The Netflix Western Concrete Cowboy sets a predictable fictional drama against a fascinating real-life backdrop

Concrete Cowboy ☆☆☆

Staring: Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin, Jharrel Jerome, Byron Bowers, Lorraine Toussaint, and Clifford “Method Man” Smith

Direction: Ricky Staub

Tagline: You are who you ride with.

The cowboy of the Hollywood Western has generally been a rugged White gunslinger. His Black counterpart has often been side-lined, if not altogether absent from the screen. Concrete Cowboy is now countering that narrative.

“Hollywood has whitewashed us,” an African American character says about half an hour into the film. “They just deleted us right out of the history books.” The new Netflix offering makes sure to rectify this oversight.

Based on Greg Neri’s novel Ghetto Cowboy, the movie finds inspiration in the factual tale of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club.

Following in the historied footsteps of urban Black cowboys, the non-profit organization has spent the last two decades promoting inner-city horsemanship in Philadelphia, serving the neighbourhood by engaging Black youth in horse riding activities while staving off threats to their group’s very existence.

The story of this real-life equestrian community meets the fictional yarn of a troubled teen in Concrete Cowboy, a modern Western that benefits from its interesting setting and impressive performances even when its drama wanders down a generic trail.

The protagonist is Cole (Caleb McLaughlin of Stranger Things fame), a rebellious teenager from Detroit. After being expelled from school, he is sent by his mother to live with his estranged father, Harp (the terrific Idris Elba), in Philly. Harp not only has an equine resident in his living room, but he also spends his days caring for the horses at the Fletcher Street stables alongside other riders (some of whom are portrayed by actual FSURC members).

Not best pleased by these developments, Cole struggles to find his place in his new surroundings. He soon starts hanging out with Smush (Jharrel Jerome), who is involved in illegal activities that are putting him in the crosshairs of both the law and a rival gang.

How things unfold for most of the characters is very predictable. Cole’s coming-of-age story is familiar and it’s easy to tell where Smush’s arc is leading. The plot therefore does not deliver much in terms of suspense. Yet the film has enough warmth and heart – especially when it comes to the strained father-son relationship, and even Cole’s bond with his unruly horse Boo – that you stay invested in the tale.

Ricky Staub’s direction is competent; the world he creates feels genuine, and his passion for the subject comes through. The impressive acting performances – McLaughlin, Elba, Jerome are all wonderful – and the inclusion of actual urban cowboys adds to the project’s impact.

What makes Concrete Cowboy particularly noteworthy, ultimately, is its unique setting. The peek we get into the workings of and difficulties faced by Philadelphia’s urban cowboys makes for interesting, rewarding viewing. However, the fascinating backstory does leave you wishing it had been paired with a more inventive narrative instead of fairly conventional, predictable drama.

Rating system: *Not on your life * ½ If you really must waste your time ** Hardly worth the bother ** ½ Okay for a slow afternoon only
*** Good enough for a look see *** ½ Recommended viewing **** Don’t miss it **** ½ Almost perfect ***** Perfection

In the picture