REVIEW: ‘Concrete Cowboy’ Tackles Fatherhood & The Legacy Of The Black Cowboy

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Concrete Cowboy

Concrete Cowboy is a Netflix original film directed by Ricky Straub and produced by Lee Daniels, based on the novel Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri. teenager Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) is sent to live with his estranged father Harp (Idris Elba) after multiple fights at school. Harp is one of the Fletcher Street Cowboys, a group of Black cowboys who aim to keep their tradition alive by maintaining their stable in Philadelphia. While struggling to reconnect with Harp and his culture, Cole starts hanging out with his cousin Smush (Jharrel Jerome), who is involved in illicit behavior.

The film serves as a coming-of-age vehicle for McLaughlin, both in terms of Cole’s characterization and breaking out from his role in Stranger Things. The former is the major draw of the film, as McLaughlin plays Cole with a simmering anger that masks a wealth of emotions. Cole barely knows his father, and chafes at dealing with the chores and lifestyle of the Fletcher Cowboys. Cole’s growth into his new life is tracked by the bond he forms with a horse who has spurned everyone who approaches it; in a sense, the two are kindred spirits. This culminates in a scene where Cole finally learns how to ride, the score swelling and camera tracking the horse bolting through the frame. In the same vein as Millie Bobby Brown with Enola Holmes and Finn Wolfhard in It, Cowboy Concrete proves that McLaughlin has a bright future ahead of him.

The other standout performance belongs to Elba, who also serves as a producer on the film. Elba’s Harp is a world-weary man, trying to make a living in a world that seems to be passing him by. Over the course of the film, Harp and Cole struggle to connect with each other-which finally leads to a heartfelt conversation after tragedy strikes. Elba has long been one of my favorite actors and Concrete Cowboy is a reminder of the sheer skill he possesses when it comes to drama.

Jerome’s Smush rounds out the trio of main performances, with his Smush a twitchy, shifty bean pole of a man who turns out to have a surprising connection to the Fletcher Street Cowboys. If Harp represents one path for Cole, Smush represents another grimmer one as he gets entangled with crime. This part of the film is rather prediable-and well worn, as other coming-of-age stories have tackled a similar set up, but it does lead to the emotional catharsis of the movie so I see why Staub and co-writer Dan Wasler went with that route.

This film marks Staub’s directorial debut and he handles the camera with ease. Since the film deals with Black cowboys, Staub peppers in elements of the Western genre. Blinding gold sunsets wash over the streets. A tracking shot features the Fletcher Street Cowboys atop their horses, sitting tall with pride. And one of the most striking images sees a young boy in awe as one of the cowboys charges by a bus on horseback. It’s a mythic image and Staub approaches it with the awe it deserves.

Much like Nomadland, Concrete Cowboy is a fictionalized depiction of a real life group, and Straub approaches the Fletcher Street Cowboys in a similar fashion to how Chloe Zhao approached the story of real life nomads. Actual riders from Fletcher Street, including Jamil Prattis and Ivanna-Mercedes, play roles in the film and the end credits highlight their real life duties-as well as the struggles they go through in keeping their way of life intact. These cowboys trade tales about their legacy over the campfire and live a spartan existence, fighting off attempts to gentrify their space.

Concrete Cowboy marks a spectacular directorial debut from Ricky Straub, while highlighting the legacy of the Fletcher Street Cowboys and featuring standout performances from Caleb McLaughlin and Idris Elba. I recommend watching this film, particularly as a double feature with Judas and the Black Messiah as they both tackle little-known segments of Black history and feature stellar performances.

Concrete Cowboy is currently available to stream on Netflix.

 

Concrete Cowboy
  • 9/10
    Rating - 9/10
9/10

TL;DR

Concrete Cowboy marks a spectacular directorial debut from Ricky Straub, while highlighting the legacy of the Fletcher Street Cowboys and featuring standout performances from Caleb McLaughlin and Idris Elba. I recommend watching this film, particularly as a double feature with Judas and the Black Messiah as they both tackle little-known segments of Black history and feature stellar performances.