Concrete Cowboy fictionalizes the real life struggles of a Black Philadelphia stables club and the fictional part comes with one of the club’s reluctant members, Cole (Caleb McLaughlin). Cole’s road to the club is a long one. The film begins with him getting into fights and facing expulsions and police encounters in Detroit. His exasperated mother Amahle (Liz Priestley) thinks that the only choice for him is to live with his estranged father in Philadelphia. Cole’s father, club member Harp (Idris Elba), has some house rules that he breaks within one night.
Harp kicks him out, forcing him to beg several neighbors for a bed to sleep in. All of these neighbors say no, and his only choice for the night are the stables. One of the club’s members, Nessie (Lorraine Toussaint), find him sleeping next to a wild horse. And Nessie, Harp, and the club teach him their ways and they don’t make things easy for him. The club and Harp feel one in the same, and the discipline that both require feel stifling for the teenage Cole. So even if it breaks Harp’s rules, Cole still reconnects with a childhood friend, Smush (Jharrel Jerome).
Both Harp and Smush reintroduce versions of Philadelphia to Cole, Harp showing the unexpected, Black cowboy experience. Meanwhile, Cole and Smush’s joyrides have visuals of the typical urban Philadelphia experience, flashing headlights and everything. Credit is due here for Ricky Staub’s cinematic adaptation on this story, as he makes both worlds feel cohesive. Smush’s world is the most dangerous one, as he takes Cole to dark house parties for drug dealers. And some of those dealers turn from being Smush’s friends to possible rivals. While Cole’s friendship with Smush make for a half and half B-plot, viewers can say the same about Cole’s conflicts with Harp.
In fairness, Harp’s version of the Black experience feels unique and mobile and the horses’ presence adds to that complexity. With those horses, these contemporary cowboys can go anywhere, or at least, those horses can take their riders to unexpected places. Boo, one of the wild horses, gallops off to a baseball diamond where mostly white people congregate, and it’s up to the club to tame Boo. As Boo almost knocks Cole out, he yells to Harp that this feels like a lesson. And although Harp’s assurances comfort Cole, some viewers might still notice how obvious this setup is.
So it’s understandable that this young, reluctant cowboy keeps going back and forth between his father and his best friend. Yes, Concrete Cowboy gives Smush some redeeming values, and those values won’t convince some viewers to like him, even for a little bit. And his plot arc makes it seem like the film doesn’t want to take his story to more interesting places. He serves as a lesson for Cole instead of being his own character. The Smush storyline feels like a Jesus moment for Cole, but it feels like a tolerable moment. It’s one of many teachable moments here that feel welcome. It takes a village to make a teenager want to work hard and then, eventually, to work smart.
Stream Concrete Cowboy on Netflix.
- Rated: R
- Genre: Drama
- Release Date: 4/2/2021
- Directed by: Ricky Staub
- Starring: Caleb McLaughlin, Idris Elba, Jharrel Jerome, Liz Priestley, Lorraine Toussaint
- Produced by: Idris Elba, Jeff G. Waxman, Jennifer Madeloff, Lee Daniels, Tucker Tooley
- Written by: Dan Walser, Ricky Staub
- Studio: Green Door Pictures, Lee Daniels Entertainment, Tucker Tooley Entertainment