Film Review: Concrete Cowboy
Director: Ricky Staub
Tucker Tooley Entertainment and Green Door Pictures
Streaming on Netflix 04.02
The whitewashing of American history would have us believe that there were a total of two Black cowboys in the old west, one played by Morgan Freeman and one played by Danny Glover. According to the Smithsonian, however, historians estimate that one in four cowboys were Black. While Concrete Cowboy is set in present-day Philadelphia rather than the west in the 1800s, it pays homage to this great heritage.
Concrete Cowboy opens with Cole (Caleb McLaughlin, Stranger Things), a 15-year-old from Detroit who is headed quickly toward a jail cell or a body bag. Cole’s mother, Amahle (Liz Priestly, Jessica Jones), at his one or two bad decisions away from being imprisoned or killed and is at her wits’ end. She takes him to North Philly to stay with his father, Harp (Idris Elba, Luther, Pacific Rim, Beasts of No Nation) at the Fletcher Stables, where he leads an “inner city meets Dodge City” lifestyle.
Cole is forced to share his room with a horse upon his arrival, and soon finds himself immersed in Harp’s world of stables, Stetsons and telling stories around the campfire every night. Cole still manages to get in trouble, falling in with a young hood called Smush (Jharrel Jerome, Moonlight, When The See Us), who is involved with some shady dealings. Cole is forced to make some crucial decisions about what direction he is riding in and what color hat he plans to wear in this life, metaphorically speaking.
Concrete Cowboy is a deeply effective and enthralling story of an ignored part of American culture, as well a tale of reconciliation between father and son. Director Ricky Staub, who also cowrote the screenplay along with Dan Walser, makes a stunning debut, but he’s blessed with an incredible cast. Elba remains a dynamic presence unlike any other in Hollywood, and Concrete Cowboy could easily be remembered as one of his signature roles. But McLaughlin is the true lead, and while he may be less immediately endearing here than he is on Stranger Things, it’s a breakout role that proves he has terrific potential as a dramatic star.
Clifford “Method Man” Smith (Red Tails) and Lorraine Toussaint (Orange is the New Black, The Glorias) lend able support, but it’s Jerome—one of the finest young actors in film—who really stands above the rest. Staub has taken a similar approach here to Chloé Zhao with Nomadland, filling the movie with real people from Fletcher Street who know and live this story everyday. To say that it pays off would be an understatement, with Jamil “Mil” Prattis giving a particularly memorable performance as former gang member who alternates between his wheelchair and sitting tall in the saddle.
Concrete Cowboy is a relatively predictable feel-good film, but it’s one that comes from the heart and from the soul. The movie has an elegance to it that cannot be easily dismissed. It easily ranks among the best studio releases of 2021 thus far and is a touching and engaging story that will leave you glad that you came along for the ride. –Patrick Gibbs