Concrete Cowboy Review: An excellently acted coming-of-age story that explores a struggling community
Ricky Staub’s feature directorial debut, Concrete Cowboy, was a big festival favorite that’s now made its way to Netflix to give the platform a coming-of-age story that spotlights a deteriorating American community.
The film, based on the novel Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri, takes viewers into the real-life neighborhood of Strawberry Mansion in North Philly where black urban cowboys uphold century-old traditions through the Fletcher Street stables. Although it’s smack dab in the center of a growing suburb, the Fletcher Street stables mix its concrete urban environment with the vibes of an old Western as a tight knit group of black cowboys maintain their livelihood as real estate developers and unhappy neighbors attempt to squeeze them out. While the film’s story of troubled teen Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) coming into his own after he goes to live with his estranged father Harp (Idris Elba) on Fletcher Street is fiction, there actually is a Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club that maintains and teaches neighborhood youth to care for horses and are given a strong spotlight in this film.
There’s something about seeing the distinct contrast of concrete buildings surrounding wooden stables filled with horses and a big open corral that’s so interesting. It’s like two time periods colliding together and it’s what makes Concrete Cowboy a visually unique modern western. There’s more to the film’s exploration of the Fletcher Street cowboys than just compelling visuals though as it also digs deep into the personal ties that keep them united and the outside forces that attempt to erase them.
Not only do they treat their horses like family, but really, they treat each other with the same genuine care. There are a lot of great personal ties that each cowboy has with their horse that fleshes out their stories and greater moments of human connection that show them as a family. That moment with the group helping wheelchair bound cowboy Paris (Jamil Prattis), one of the real-life cowboys featured here, ride again sticks with you in a great way and is truly inspirational.
The film fleshes out the strong community bond within the Fletcher Street cowboys really well and equally delves into how these cowboys and their traditions are unfortunately becoming a dying breed. Gentrification and uncaring developers are trying to squeeze them out in order to put up more residential housing that’ll attract a younger, generally whiter market. Their struggles to fully maintain their stables has created a stench that constantly creates neighborhood complaints and attracts unwanted attention from city officials and local police. There’s even a moment where the group talks about how Western films have whitewashed cowboys and completely erased them from history and it’s an eye-opening moment that further speaks to how Black History has been erased in the US. It’s always great when a film can spotlight an unheard voice or overshadowed community and Concrete Cowboy does a really great job painting a realistic portrait of the remaining black cowboys and cowgirls left in North Philly.
As for its coming-of-age story of Cole, the film certainly gets the job done in delivering a well-acted tale of growing up. It’s always a pleasure to see one of the Stranger Things kids outside of the show and McLaughlin really brings his best. He makes Cole’s constant struggles in finding a direction for himself very relatable and has some real standout moments when it comes to his fractured relationship with Harp and his growing sense of belonging with the cowboys. Honestly, the entire cast is really excellent with Elba and Method Man also being great standouts among many others and there are great themes about masculinity and growing up throughout that embody how Cole is trapped between two worlds.
The only real issue with Concrete Cowboy’s story is that it’s eerily familiar – especially compared to Charm City Kings. This film sets itself apart a little more through its exploration of the Fletcher Street cowboys and Cole and Harp’s troubled relationship, but it’s virtually a carbon copy of Charm City Kings and similar coming of age stories. Both films explore cultural touchstones of US black communities, with Charm City Kings touching on Baltimore’s urban dirt bike riding scene. Both films have their young black teen protagonists find themselves bouncing around diverging life paths with one giving them a better lifestyle and the other having them perform illegal acts. They also have a friend who generally is a bad influence as Cole is constantly compelled by his friend Smush (Jharrel Jerome) to follow in his drug dealing ways. None of this is to say that one is blatantly copying the other since they’re both inspired by different source material and cultures, but it’s tough not to notice how similar their formulas and structures are, and it makes Concrete Cowboy’s story not as fresh.
Although its central coming of age story structure is overly familiar, Concrete Cowboy is able to stand on its own as an incredibly acted story of growing up that shows McLaughlin’s strengths as a lead and excellently puts the spotlight on an under-recognized black community within one of the nation’s most historically prominent cities.