Outside of overpriced carriage rides through historic areas, you might not expect to see horses galloping through the streets of Philadelphia. But there’s a century-long tradition of Black horsemanship in the City of Brotherly Love, primarily in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood located east of Fairmount Park in North Philadelphia that persists to this day. This relatively unknown, but very real scenario is the backdrop for Concrete Cowboy, Ricky Staub‘s somewhat by-the-numbers, but still sharp drama about an estranged father and son bonding over one summer in the city.
Teenager Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) is out of control, and his mother (Liz Priestley) just can’t handle him anymore. After Cole gets in another fight at school – one that results in him being put in handcuffs – his mother piles his clothes into garbage packs, hustles Cole into the car, and drives the kid from Detroit to Philadelphia, where she promptly dumps him on the doorstep of his estranged father, Harp (Idris Elba).
Father and son have nothing in common, a fact that’s underscored when Cole discovers Harp is something of a cowboy, lording over a series of rough stables on Fletcher Street, where he and other horseriders pass their time – when they’re not riding – shooting the shit, sitting around a fire, swigging some beers, and telling stories. And oh yeah, Harp has a horse living inside his house, too – just off to the side of the living room.
Cole wants nothing to do with Harp and his horses at first and reconnects with a childhood friend, Smush (Jharrel Jerome). Smush is embedded within the drug-dealers of the neighborhood and has big dreams about making enough money to get away. He used to ride, too, but gave it all up. Harp doesn’t want Cole hanging around with Smush, and Cole promises he won’t – a promise he breaks immediately, secretly going on late-night runs with his friend.
In the midst of all of this, Cole begins to grow closer to both his father and his father’s lifestyle. And you can clearly see where this is going. Cole and Harp will learn to love each other despite their differences. Cole will grow to love riding horses and become something of a cowboy himself, all while his secret relationship with Smush puts him in potential danger.
The script, by Dan Walser and Ricky Staub, based on the novel by Greg Neri, will probably not score any points for originality. There are times where Concrete Cowboy is as predictable as can be, and there are one or two moments that ring particularly false, as when a character near the end of the film gives a big pep-talk that sounds like an overwritten speech rather than something the character would actually say.
And yet…Concrete Cowboy succeeds. Sure, you know where a lot of this is going, but there’s powerful filmmaking on display here. Cinematographer Minka Farthing-Kohl often creates situations where scenes are deliberately underlit, swallowed up in murky shadows. And then there are the daytime scenes, tinged yellow by a burning sun, to the point where we can almost feel the heat radiating off the concrete. A scene where Cole attempts to stand atop a horse while the sun is setting – the sky awash in purples and pinks while all we see of Cole and the horse are their silhouettes – is just breathtaking.
Then there are the performances. McLaughlin, so underused on Stranger Things, shows real acting chops here, playing Cole as someone struggling to throw the chip off his shoulder. A moment where he finally breaks down, emotional over his emotional estrangement from his father, is raw and real. Elba is just as good, finally finding a great role to suit his talents that have been thus far somewhat wasted by Hollywood. Harp is distant from Cole, but he’s not mean, and when he finally thaws a bit and shows the boy some warmth, it’s stirring.
Still, the script keeps tripping over itself, and there are several scenes – such as a horse heist – that feel a bit bungled, and almost forced – as if someone, somewhere, complained that there wasn’t enough action in the movie. But every time Concrete Cowboy is in danger of succumbing to these problems, it pulls itself back with some surprises. One of Staub’s best ideas is to cast real Fletcher Street natives, including the superb Jamil “Mil” Prattis as the wheelchair-bound Paris, who takes Cole under his wing and teaches him the fine art of shoveling horse shit.
There’s a serious lack of movies about Black cowboys or Black equestrians in general, and by telling their story in the unlikeliest of settings, Concrete Cowboy feels vibrant and alive, even when it’s suffering from its own plotting problems. And when a moment arises where a bus full of people looks on in awe as Hap, Cole, and the other riders go galloping by in slow motion, it’s hard not to love Concrete Cowboy just a little bit.
/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10
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