Concrete Cowboy is the writing/directing feature debut of Ricky Staub. What else has he worked on? Basically nothing. It appears that he came up as an assistant to Sam Mercer, a blockbuster Hollywood producer who obligingly exec-produced this picture alongside the likes of Lee Daniels and Idris Elba. So it’s a white guy writing and directing a black story, but at least he has some high-profile black producers supporting him. Okay, I guess.
This is a coming-of-age story focused on Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), a Detroit boy who just got expelled from yet another high school for getting in yet another fight. Cole’s mother (Amahle, played by Liz Priestley) is at her wit’s end, so she sends Cole out to Philadelphia, dumping Cole at the doorstep of his absentee father (Harp, played by Elba). The kicker: Harp is a true modern-day cowboy.
The film (and the G. Neri novel it was based on) is inspired by the real-life Fletcher Street Riders, a community of black people in Philly who preserve the legacy of horseback riding. Yes, these are black cowhands. And the characters themselves are emphatic in pointing out that a great many cowboys of the Old West were in fact people of color. The history — as with so many other aspects of history — has simply been whitewashed by Hollywood and the white man’s entitled ego, that’s all.
What’s more, horse-drawn wagons became obsolete somewhere around 1939. That’s not even 100 years ago. It’s all too easy to forget that there is no such thing as “ancient history” here in the USA. Aside from the Native American cultures, the First Nations, and of course certain natural and geological formations, there is nothing in the Americas that’s anywhere near old enough to be considered “ancient”. The past is never far away when our nation isn’t even 300 years old and firsthand knowledge of the last 70 is readily available.
That said, the fact remains that this particular Philadelphia stable is nowhere near up to code, neighbors hate the smell of horseshit, and our cowhands don’t even own the land they’re using. Plus, there’s always the risk of a horse breaking loose and running off, putting themselves and unsuspecting passersby at risk of injury. This leads directly to the ongoing threat of real estate developers swooping in to tear down the stable and put up a Starbucks or something. Gentrification is constantly pushing out the poor, and white capitalism is perpetually crowding out black people and black culture. But on the other hand, if all this stuff is old and obsolete and falling into disrepair, maybe it’s simply time to let the old ways die. All things must inevitably come to an end, and maybe it’s just time.
That being said, horses are notoriously expensive. One character explains that the cowhands have been known to skip meals themselves just so the horses can eat. This would certainly explain why Harp’s house is a rickety junk heap and there’s virtually no food in his kitchen. (Not a great living condition for Cole to move into, but we’ll come back to that.) Point being that these cowhands have put so much into these stables and these horses, it’s unclear what would be left of the cowhands without them. What could they possibly move on to?
These themes of gentrification and erasure of black history/culture are nothing new in cinema. (Blindspotting, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and Queenie and Slim to a lesser extent all come to mind.) But the equestrian angle makes for a fascinating spin on an old theme. Horses make for a potent symbol because they are inherently sympathetic. (Seriously, who doesn’t like horses?) The process of training a horse and developing any kind of working relationship with this powerful beast requires a great deal of constant care and attention over a long period of time. What’s more, this isn’t like a house or an abstract tradition, this is a beating heart and a sentient life that can never be replaced if it’s discarded or allowed to die. Even better, because this is a coming-of-age story, the process of learning how to work at a stable and properly train a horse provides any number of tests for our protagonist to pass and demonstrate his development as a character.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the actual Fletcher Street Riders playing fictionalized versions of themselves in the film. Jamil “Paris” Prattis is particularly noteworthy as a mentor figure for Cole, and also a fascinating demonstration of how a paraplegic can still ride a horse. Another highlight is Ivannah-Mercedes, nicknamed “Esha”, a young black woman who positions herself as a love interest for Cole. It’s a damn shame the romance arc goes nowhere, because Ivannah-Mercedes turns out to be a genuine acting talent.
In fact, she and Prattis both act our male lead off the screen. Hell, if I’m being perfectly honest, Caleb McLaughlin was not the right choice for this role. He doesn’t have the charisma, he doesn’t have the range, and he doesn’t have the screen presence to hold his own against the likes of Idris Elba or Lorraine Toussaint (here playing Nessie, another mentor figure). There were so many times in this movie when I wished that Cole would show an honest-to-God emotion, rather than simply letting his mouth hang open without expression. Additionally, Cole spends roughly half the movie complaining about his current situation, and our protagonist needed a far more likeable lead actor to compensate for that.
I humbly submit that the film might have been far better if McLaughlin had traded roles with Jharrel Jerome, here playing a character inexplicably referred to as “Smush”. He’s a childhood friend to Cole, and he’s apparently active in any number of street crimes. Everyone warns Cole away from Smush, but it’s hard to pay those warnings any mind when Smush seems to be the only one in the entire world who actually wants Cole around. Moreover, Harp and his fellow cowhands don’t seem to have any plan beyond their horses, unable or unwilling to do anything with their lives except go down with their rotting stables. Say what you will about Smush, but at least he has ambition and a drive to make something of himself, even if he has to resort to dangerous criminal measures.
Then again, for a young black teen growing up on the streets, it’s tough to argue the point that the only two options are “burn out” or “fade away”. And all due credit to Jerome, he’s more than charismatic enough to make the street thug life into a plausible alternative for Cole.
But then we have Harp. On the one hand, it’s Idris Elba. Of course he’s got star power for days and he can hold the screen like nobody’s business. On the other hand, it’s Idris Elba. For all of Elba’s talent, he never completely disappears into the character because in all honesty, there isn’t much of a character to disappear into. I know that Harp is supposed to be this emotionally stunted cowhand more comfortable with horses than with people, but it worked all too well — never once did I ever feel like I really got to know or understand who this guy was.
This is an especially huge problem with regard to the Cole/Harp dynamic. This relationship between a rudderless delinquent and his absentee father really should be the beating heart of the film, and the arc is nowhere near as strong as it needed to be.
For instance, there’s a scene in which Cole threatens to storm out of the house because Harp cares more about the horses and the other cowhands than his own son. Harp cares more about the stables than the roof over his and his son’s head, he’ll buy food for the horses before feeding himself or Cole. What the hell does that say about Harp as a father, and why should Cole treat him as such? The film never really comes up with a satisfactory answer for that, and the question doesn’t change Harp in any appreciable way.
While I understand how Cole turned into a better and more well-rounded individual for his time in the stables, I’m not clear on how Cole is any different for having his father back in his life. And hell if I know how any of the film’s events changed Harp in any way. That’s a glaring problem, and it’s likely a crucial reason why the third act felt so flat.
On a final casting note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Method Man in the role of Leroy, a local police officer and a Fletcher Street Rider alumnus. This guy is all over the place. Though it’s a pleasure to see Method Man onscreen, Leroy’s motivations and allegiances are wildly inconsistent. I get that he’s supposed to serve as a liaison between the cowhands and the hegemony of the outside world, but he functions more like an all-purpose plot device.
As a last miscellaneous note, I understand that the movie has been racking up serious critical acclaim for its visuals. I don’t agree. Yes, there is some brilliant camerawork here and some inspired shots of the horses. But we also get some egregious use of shaky-cam, most especially in a woefully bad chase sequence.
Concrete Cowboy works more than well enough as a sociopolitical film about black people struggling to maintain a fading legacy in the face of white capitalism and gentrification. It also works as a sociopolitical film about a young man forced to choose between a legitimate life that’s probably doomed and a criminal life that’s absolutely doomed. But as a coming-of-age story, it’s sadly underwhelming.
The movie has the bigger cultural issues down, but the more personal themes aren’t where they need to be. The romance arc is half-baked, the father/son arc is broken, and it certainly doesn’t help that Caleb McLaughlin isn’t quite ready to carry his own movie just yet. It’s a lot easier to recommend this one because it comes free with a Netflix subscription, and that’s exactly what I’d say this one is worth.