A defining characteristic of many westerns—some may say of the genre as a whole—is the pushback against an encroaching modern world; the fight of the cowboy to preserve his way of life even as the end seems inevitable. Whatever else may be going on in “Concrete Cowboy,” that basic DNA of the western is omnipresent.
Directed by Ricky Straub and based on the book “Ghetto Cowboy” by G. Neri, this movie places itself in a real, if unlikely, location, the Fletcher Street Stables in Philadelphia. From that vantage, “Concrete Cowboy” tells the story of one teenager, Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), as he struggles to learn the difference between right and wrong. It is then a coming of a stage story married to a western and it works well on both accounts.
We first meet Cole as he is being picked up at school by his mother and finding himself expelled from yet another institution. At the end of her rope, she drives him from Detroit to Philadelphia and leaves him at the doorstep of his estranged father, Harp (Idris Elba). We then spend time with Cole as he finds his footing in a new place and has to decide whether he wants to go off with a budding drug dealer, Smush (Jharrel Jerome), or do the right thing.
It isn’t exactly a new tension, but Straub hits the presentation exactly right. Cole’s father is someone the boy doesn’t know well and is a difficult man, the neighborhood is one Cole doesn’t know at all, and Smush is a guy Cole used to hang out with when they were both younger. Smush offers the promise of easy riches and Harp offers the promise of hard work. Cole certainly sense that Smush is going to bring trouble, but the notion of an easy life is appealing. It is, potentially, more appealing than spending time—and doing a lot of hard work—at the horse stables Harp and his friends frequent. The stables may be somewhat enticing (who doesn’t love horses), but Smush is promising a quick road to riches.
As the film builds, the choices get bigger and the strain on Cole more difficult to bear. McLaughlin is excellent in his portrayal, as are both Jerome and Elba. It is easy to sit there watching the movie and to want to yell at the screen as Cole makes a poor decision, or as Harp does the same. Harp would be the first person to tell you that he isn’t a saint even if he’s closer to the light than he was at Cole’s age. The struggle we see as he learns to adjust to the reappearance of his son is powerful, just as is Cole’s adjustment to Harp and his way of life.
That said, not every choice the movie makes goes towards creating a stronger story. More up-temp, action-based sequences are less engaging. In one, the utilization of shaky cam serves to remove the viewer from the action more than making them a part of it. In another, when a horse is struggling, the chosen camera angles make it difficult to judge distances and undercut any potential belief in the reality of the situation. That is, too often we don’t believe that the actors are near the horse (whether or not they were in reality).
Additionally, while the story is powerful on the whole, it isn’t always deep. The performances convey the strength of the movie even while some of the tale seems pro forma. When the climax does arrive, the story portion of it feels rushed even if it takes a while to actually play out. As Harp faces a big decision, we feel too much on the outside of it.
Strengthening the cast and those performances is Lorraine Toussaint as Nessie, a fellow member of the stables and neighbor to Harp, as well as Cliff “Method Man” Smith as a police offer who grew up in the neighborhood. Given far too little to do, Toussaint is still a powerhouse in her moments on screen, particularly early on as she does her best to set Cole down the right path. Smith makes the most of his scenes and gives us that tension between working on the right side of the law and doing the right thing for the community as the stables run into some trouble when gentrification gets too near (see western genre references above).
At its base, “Concrete Cowboy” sparks an incredible amount of interest in the notion of these city-based stables. More than one of the actors in the film, most notably Jamil “Mil” Prattis (who may be the highlight of the entire film) and Ivannah Mercedes, are actually a part of the Fletcher Street Stables. As the credits roll, we hear of real experiences at the stable and what the stable has meant for people in the community. It’s powerful, at least as powerful as the body of the film itself, and makes one want to go back to watch the movie again, if only to see the portions at the stable.
“Concrete Cowboy,” if nothing else, shows once again that elements of the western are alive and well and can play out in portions of the country very far from the open range. With some really good performances both at its center and amongst the supporting cast, it offers up an opportunity to learn about the presence of something with which many of us will not be familiar – horse culture in Philadelphia. It may not always succeed in the way it builds its narrative, but it’s more than compelling from start to finish.
photo credit: Netflix