This film was screened as a part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.
It may be hard for some people to believe, but cowboys don’t only exist in the south or west. For years, North Philadelphia has had a vibrant Black cowboy subculture on its city streets. This subculture takes center stage in Concrete Cowboy, based on the nonfiction book, Ghetto Cowboy, by Greg Neri. The film, helmed by Ricky Staub, looks to add history and context to this culture, while placing a father-son story at the center of the narrative.
After getting kicked out of school in Detroit again, the mother of 15-year-old Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) sends him to live with his estranged father, Harp (Idris Elba) who lives in Philadelphia. She hopes that a summer hundreds and hundreds of miles away from home can set him on the right path. To say Cole doesn’t want to be in Philadelphia is an understatement. It seems like he’d rather be anyplace else in the world. This is further exacerbated by the fact that there is a steep learning curve in him fitting into this new world. Cole doesn’t have much knowledge of when his parents lived here together, the neighborhood in general or Fletcher Street Stables. The stables have been a sort of saving grace of the neighborhood, providing community and giving folks a suitable hobby when they could be dealing in more perilous situations.
Cole walks into his father’s disheveled house to see a horse and quickly realizes that this will be a wild ride, no pun intended. The relationship between the two is fraught. Cole quite frankly doesn’t know his father and Harp is cognizant of the damages that his past mistakes have had on his son. With no money, no phone and only bags of clothes to his name, he stumbles upon an old childhood best friend and cousin, Smush (Jharrel Jerome), and leans onto him for familiarity. Though it’s been a decade since they last saw each other, the two pick up right where they left off.
Harp disapproves of the relationship, believing that Smush will only bring Cole trouble. Cole finds a nurturing figure in next-door neighbor Nessie (Lorraine Toussaint) and reluctantly agrees to tend to the stables, inadvertently landing in a situation where he gets a horse of his own. Though he starts off being annoyed by menial tasks like scooping up feces, the teen begins to settle in, forming a quick bond with his horse and finding his own spot in the Fletcher Street community. Harp’s not a talker, but he and Cole find a way to communicate through caring for the horses. There’s a dichotomy between the stables and the larger environment: the concrete streets and the grass on which they graze. This is also evident in Cole’s own two worlds tugging at him: the stables vs. the lifestyle Smush can provide.
He’s still rolling with Smush, a low-level drug dealer with dreams of owning his own property out west. With this companionship, Smush comes with money and devoted protection and loyalty. But as Smush continues to head down an increasingly dangerous path, the city, developers and gentrification close in even further on the stables. Rich in heritage as one of the few stables left, the city is adamant about the community complaints and the pending expiration date of the property. Leroy (Method Man), a local police officer who used to be a Fletcher Street regular, tries to bridge the gap between both parties. All of this leaves Cole at a crossroads and sets the stage for a life-changing event that will force him to reckon with his situation.
Not only is this McLaughlin's first leading role, but it is also his first major role outside of Stranger Things. The actor, now 18 and the oldest of his young co-stars, is all grown-up now, and Concrete Cowboy is a perfect foray into the next stage of his career. McLaughlin proves that he is a leading star and worthy of the big things that are undoubtedly coming his way. Emmy winner Jerome is equally as excellent as Smush. Though he's a supporting player in all of this, Jerome is electric on screen from start to finish like he’s gunning for an Oscar, very much reminiscent of his Moonlight performance. And Elba’s is great too as a complicated father who is trying to do right, accompanied by a Philly drawl. McLaughlin shares incredibly poignant moments with them both on-screen.
As far as the storyline we see here, it is a bit formulaic. Once we see Cole get dropped off at his father’s place and the subsequent introduction of “bad boy” Smush, it’s clear to see the direction where this is headed in. In the grand scheme of things, it all feels quite familiar, especially for those who have already seen Charm City Kings (out on HBO Max in October), a film that bears great resemblance to Concrete Cowboy -- highlighting a Black American subculture in an urban community. Both films utilize real-life subjects in order to add to the film’s legitimacy. However, the stakes don’t feel as high and the twists aren’t as game-changing in Concrete Cowboy as they are in Charm City Kings. It is a bit too run of the mill for it to have a run time of nearly two hours.
All of this isn’t to say Concrete Cowboy isn’t a satisfactory or compelling enough story on its own, it just doesn’t exactly make the most of its potential. The performances from McLaughlin, Elba, Jerome and Touissaint are more than enough to keep you engaged, as well as the real-life Fletcher Street denizens. Staub and his co-writer, Dan Walser, do a great job of integrating them into the film. There’s even one section of the movie that is devoted to calling out how Hollywood has essentially erased Black cowboys out of history. After the film’s narrative concludes, the credits are devoted to the real-life subjects speaking about their history and what they are going through in the present-day. They breathe an air of authenticity into the film, adding to the larger message of community for this powerful ode to this neighborhood, subculture and the Black urban riders that are more than deserving of recognition.
Concrete Cowboys had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 13. It is awaiting distribution.