Film Review – Concrete Cowboy
The setup is classic formula. A troubled youth, running out of options, is sent away to their long-lost parent in a last-ditch effort to set them straight. Through their interaction, the child and parent come of age, learning more about the world and about themselves. We’ve seen this scenario play out a thousand times. But in Concrete Cowboy (2021) it’s set in such a unique environment that it almost feels new again. We enter a community of black cowboys living in North Philadelphia. Their days go by just as if they lived on a ranch – looking after a stable of horses, sitting around a campfire telling stories, etc. When they ride out during sunset, their silhouettes etched on the screen, they look just like the heroes of an old western.
The story of black cowboys is one tragically under told. Even more overlooked is the story of black cowboys living in an urban environment. And yet, it is very much true. Director Ricky Staub (who co-writes with Dan Walser) structures the narrative based on the real-life Fletcher Street Cowboys. Many of them appear as characters here, playing a version of themselves. There is an authenticity in the way Staub capture their lives. Minka Farthing-Kohl’s cinematography picks up on details in documentary like fashion. The clash between rural and urban lifestyles creates a texture entirely of its own kind. Horseback riding takes place in a park instead of a prairie, with cars passing by instead of wagons. Campfires are accompanied by lawn chairs, and horses are stabled in apartment buildings.
Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) has come to Philly from Detroit for the summer. Cole’s mother has reached such a breaking point that she drops him off on the street with his clothes stuffed in trash bags. His reunion with his father, Harp (Idris Elba) is less than warm, to say the least. He ends up having to sleep in the living room, with Harp’s horse kept right next to him. Initially hating his predicament, Cole meets up with his cousin Smush (Jharrel Jerome) to go on late night activities that are not quite legal. Harp knows that hanging out with Smush can only lead to trouble, so gives Cole an ultimatum: he can stay with Smush and deal with the consequences on his own, or he can stay with Harp but has to work. The majority of narrative features Cole oscillating back forth between the two sides.
The contrast between Harp and Smush isn’t as wide as we would first surmise. In a way, the two are opposite sides of the same coin. Both made a deliberate choice in how they would manage their lives, and Cole operates directly in the middle. This dynamic works as the central emotional point of tension. Cole and Smush share similarities. Smush was once part of the cowboy community but decided to leave it for criminal pursuits. In scenes where Smush reminisces on the time he helped take care of horses, we can sense how much that influenced him, both positively and negatively. Cole is at the crossroads Smush once was, and the temptation to follow his cousin’s footsteps is strong. Jharrel Jerome delivers yet another strong performance as the character, giving Smush depth and humanity.
Idris Elba has always been able to mix his commanding screen presence with vulnerability and charm. Harp may seem like a hard man, but that is only because he has lived a life that has forced him to be that way. He connects with Cole the only way he knows how to: through work, toughness, and perseverance. A big turning point comes when the community has to wrangle a rogue steed, with Harp urging Cole to step forward and calm the animal down. Harp doesn’t hold his son’s hand – he allows him to make his own choices and doesn’t try to bend the boy to his will.
Cole is like many young kids his age – full of confusion, anxiety, and heightened emotion. He sits on the precipice of adulthood, which can be a scary place to be. McLaughlin – who we know from Stranger Things – balances these multiple facets in believable fashion. He can act spontaneously, prone to bouts of anger at a moment’s notice. But McLaughlin grounds him, using that youthful energy as a means to express Cole’s uncertainty about himself and the position he is in. McLaughlin shows us that Cole is a good person but is a product of a system that tosses him around like a hot potato instead of actually helping him. When he is around people that care, he shows a completely different side. The climactic moment between Harp and Cole shows a tenderness between a father and son that resonates with dramatic power.
Is Concrete Cowboy a familiar story? Yes, it is. Can we guess how the conflicts between these characters will likely resolve? Absolutely. But the strength of the acting – combined with the warmth given to this community and those that populate it – elevate the material above its recognizable premise. Like last year’s Nomadland (2020), this puts the spotlight on a group of people living on the fringes of society. They are entwined in the fabric of America and deserve just as much respect and consideration as anyone else.