Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. Netflix releases the film on Friday, April 2.
The very existence of Fletcher Street Stables, where Black cowboys have kept horses in cramped rooms and roamed the city streets for a century, begs for cultural investigation. While the image of the Black cowboy has been marginalized by American storytelling, the real-life characters of Fletcher Street provide an excuse to make up for past exclusions. The setting served as a backdrop for Greg Neri’s novel “Ghetto Cowboy,” which has now inspired “Concrete Cowboy,” a sentimental father-son drama that doesn’t break new ground, but milks the fascinating backdrop for all its formulaic potential and winds up compelling enough.
Idris Elba stars as stern and world-weary North Philly cowboy Harp, who has given up on family life to roam the streets with his trusty steed Chuck and a close-knit community of fellow riders. That routine gets shaken up with the arrival of his troubled teen son Cole (“Stranger Things” discovery Caleb McLaughlin), who has been expelled from Detroit schools so many times that his exasperated mother (a frantic Elizabeth Priestley in a handful of scenes) takes him on an impromptu drive 600 miles east and abandons him at his estranged father’s doorstep.
At this point, one can practically hear the pitch session. Jarred by the horse-in-house situation and forced to sleep on the ambivalent Harp’s grimy couch, Cole does everything he can to wriggle out of the situation until the community finally welcomes him into its routine, and of course he starts to warm to its history with time. And…scene!
First-time director Ricky Staub follows a lot of familiar beats with Cole’s transition from angsty rebel to promising rider, but his cast gives the drama real muscle. Elba, the ultimate action star that Hollywood can never quite figure out, delivers a fun scenery-chewing riff on cowboy machismo, and McLaughlin has a frantic energy that “Stranger Things” never lets him express. While the movie shoehorns in a cheesy criminal subplot involving Cole’s childhood pal Smush (“Moonlight” breakout Jharrel Jerome, who could make a winning action star himself soon enough), the narrative framework of “Concrete Cowboy” grows less relevant as various supporting characters steal the show.
These are real-life Fletcher Street riders, whom Straub has worked into the plot and coaxed such genuine performances out of, they probably deserved top billing. Chief among them is wheelchair-bound Jamil Prattis, who helps Cole get a handle on the shit-shoveling stable routine before he warms up to his surroundings, and Ivanna Mercedes, the plucky young rider who becomes Cole’s romantic interest. Once again, their relationship isn’t exactly deep, but there’s an underlying authenticity to their performances — aided by cinematographer Minka Farthing-Kohl’s magic-hour cinematography — that endows “Concrete Cowboy” with genuine docudrama intrigue as it maps out a hidden world. That gives the movie a real sense of peril when its future is endangered by encroaching gentrification.
While the riders think they have a man on the inside with rider-turned-officer Leroy (a sullen Method Man), the city has grown weary of the sanitation questions surrounding the riders’ stables, setting the stage for a third-act horse heist that’s hard to buy but certainly suspenseful in its own right. “Concrete Cowboy” may be by the book, but Staub and Dan Walser’s heavy-handed screenplay makes a solid argument for going that route since these characters have missed out on it before. Sitting around the fire one night, the riders rage against the “John Wayne bullshit” that has obscured their existence, concluding, “Hollywood is always trying to delete us from the history books.”
Maybe so, but “Concrete Cowboys” makes up for missed time, and suggests there are many more Black cowboy stories left to tell. As the credits on the movie roll, several of the Fletcher Street riders break the fourth wall for interviews about the value of the movie’s existence, a strange self-congratulatory device in a movie that seems almost desperate to justify its existence. Yet the footage holds unique appeal, pointing out the potential of a documentary that would have made an even sturdier case for the riders’ survival in modern times. “Concrete Cowboy” wants to make its setting more accessible by surrounding the Fletcher Street riders with movie stars and a rousing plot that certainly hits its beats on cue. There’s certainly representational value in the way it brings a conventionally rousing narrative to such unorthodox material. At the same time, it leaves you wondering how much better the whole thing would have held together if it simply let the riders speak for themselves.
“Concrete Cowboy” premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.