This deep dive into the tradition of Black cowboys features brilliant worldbuilding but is undercut by a bland father-son story
Despite their position as eternal emblems of American cinema, cowboy movies have often failed to accurately reflect the nation they’re representing – homogeneously white, even as styles changed from John Ford classics to Spaghetti Westerns to most of the recent “neo-Westerns.” There has, though, in recent years, been a trend of redressing that balance, from Django Unchained to Chloe Zhao's focus on Sioux cowboys in The Rider. Concrete Cowboy continues in this vein, examining the world of the modern Black cowboys keeping the old frontier traditions alive in urban Philadelphia, and a fascinating setting that elevates an otherwise bland father-son story.
We’re introduced to this world through the eyes of Cole (Stranger Things’s Caleb McLaughlin), a very troubled Detroit kid, recently expelled from school for fighting and sent by his desperate mum to live with his estranged dad Harp (Idris Elba), who runs a stables in north Philadelphia. From here, the plot runs in very predictable directions, as Cole learns discipline from his daily routine of caring for the stables, bonds with a horse, and struggles with the bad influence of his old friend Smush (Jharrel Jerome), who is in deep with some local gangsters.
What keeps Concrete Cowboy from sinking completely into cliché is the authenticity and care with which the Black cowboy community is portrayed. Fletcher Street, where the film takes place, was a very real urban riding club before gentrification steamrolled it, and director Ricky Staub clearly mourns its loss, diving deep into the community it fostered and populating the supporting cast with real Fletcher Street riders.
Their bonds with their horses are very touching to see, and the old-school movie magic of a tight-knit group galloping through town is as thrilling here as it always is, a beautiful vision of freedom no matter the era or location. It’s a pity, then, that their stories feel so thinly sketched. Only Cole is offered any sort of depth to his character – even Elba is underserved as Harp, not really making an impact on the story until over halfway through, and even then only breaking through in fits and starts.
Meanwhile, Smush’s motivations are so opaque that the climax of his subplot – which should be an emotional lynchpin of the film – barely registers. Generic dialogue about “the streets” and cliched lines like “horses aren’t the only things here that need to be broken” are abundant, often threatening to undo all the good work done with the worldbuilding.
McLaughlin makes good work of his first real star role, and his key horse-breaking scene is incredibly impressive. Cole is a realistically bratty kid, initially hard to warm to, but McLaughlin imbues him with a humanity and barely disguised fear that keep him from ever being outright unlikeable, earning more and more of our sympathies as the film progresses. When Concrete Cowboy just lets Cole and his horses loose around Fletcher Street it hits a deeply compelling stride, but too much of the story around these moments feels like filler. This is an insightful look at an underappreciated community undercut by forgettable characters and rote dialogue.
Concrete Cowboy is now streaming on Netflix.Where to watch