If you are like me, you know very little about concrete cowboys. Luckily, Concrete Cowboy is more than ready to answer your questions. Located on the streets of Philadelphia, PA, the urban African-American horse riding culture is a very real, subset of society.
North Philadelphia, Born & Raised
After getting in trouble at school, Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) is dropped off at his father’s doorstep in Philadelphia. There, he finds that his dad, Harp (Idris Elba), is a concrete cowboy. He and others like him tend to the stables day in and day out. Cole, who is from Detroit, is off-put by his father’s lifestyle. Beyond his job, Harp has a horse staying in his house with him and keeps very little food on hand.
The next day, Cole tries to leave the city but runs into his cousin, Smush (Jharrel Jerome). When Harp finds out Cole has been spending time with Smush, he refuses to let him stay in the house that night. Cole ends up spending the night in the stable and forges a bond with one of the horses, which leads to a growing interest in what it is his dad does.
A Different World
Just as Cole is learning the way of life of the concrete cowboy, so are we. It’s incredibly interesting, seeing horses and a stable in the middle of one of the biggest cities in America. The juxtaposition between the fast-paced, drug dealing life that Smush leads and the life that Harp leads is apparent. You can feel Cole being pulled to both sides. One which might seem more appealing, as it’s what his cousin does. And the other, which is so completely different than what he has known.
As he gets further engrained into the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, Cole sees the ways in which the club is actually a family. They work together, they rely on one another, and they care deeply for each other. One of the most touching moments of the film comes when Harp builds an accessible saddle for one of the members who is paralyzed. It shows the heart that he has, that’s hiding from us and Cole, underneath his tough exterior.
Unfortunately, there are not enough moments like that in the film. It’s a bit too meandering at times. Never really telling a complete story, despite having several roots planted. There are several directions the film could go but it consistently takes the easiest approach to the story, which is disappointing. Concrete Cowboy has such an interesting world to share but does not do enough with it. This is, of course, through no fault of McLaughlin and Elba.
Elba is reliably good in this role – gruff, tough, and a man of few words. Wish the movie had given him even just one or two more scenes to open up to the audience. Harp clearly cares about his horse riding family but it’s only shown in bit parts that don’t add up enough to make a complete character.
As his son, McLaughlin is a surprise. Admittedly, I have not seen any of his previous work. Here, he takes on the role of a young, vulnerable, impressionable teenager so well. He is clearly lost & unsure of where to go. His new life in Philadelphia presents a crossroads – he can go the way of Smush and make quick, illegal money or he can go the way of his father and find a community to call his own. To see his internal struggle, while also begging to be shown affection by his father, is quietly touching.
A Touch of Naturalism
The two leads are surrounded by an assortment of non professional actors. Something to really admire about Concrete Cowboy is that several of the members of the club are actual cowboys from Northern Philadelphia. Their inclusion in the film makes for naturalistic moments, when they are sitting around a fire swapping stories or informing Cole what it means to be an urban cowboy. It adds a layer of realism to the film that makes the story more fascinating.
Although Concrete Cowboy, as a whole, leaves something to be desired, the performances make up for some of that. Elba & McLaughlin, combined with the non professional actors, make for a community that feels real & alive. It’s too bad that there is not a better story surrounding them, though, as this film really could have been something special.