One of the things that I love most in cinema is when a film invites me into a world or subculture that I had previously known nothing about. It’s one thing to watch a documentary and be given a very A-Z style education on a subject, but it’s an entirely different feeling when you are presented that subject in the form of a film narrative that is trying to do more than simply show you the ropes. With it’s very title, Netflix’s Concrete Cowboy looked like it was going to be the exact kind of movie that I so love to experience!
Concrete Cowboy tells the story of Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), a fifteen year old from Detroit who, after repeatedly getting in trouble at school, is sent by his mother to live with his father Harp in Philadelphia. There he encounters the world of urban cowboys and begins to find an improved version himself within a culture that boasts a proud and interesting history among the African American population of the city.
In terms of highlighting an element of American society that I had no idea about, Concrete Cowboy hits the nail on the head. Growing up in the United Kingdom, with the only filtered through images of cowboys being those in the form of white, Southern, John Wayne-esque figures, this film broadened my horizons on two fronts, both the idea of cowboys in urban, inner city areas, and cowboys that don’t look like those found in The Searchers. The film very succinctly and rightly reminds the viewer that just like much of the modern music, fashion and other culture that we enjoy today, the roots of these things are always found with black origins. Much of American history in particular has been whitewashed, and though the purpose of Concrete Cowboy isn’t to point out all of these various examples, by merely portraying the subculture that it does, it has something important to say.
Beyond all of the interesting rural vs. urban aesthetic and the sheer intrigue of a cowboy culture in the middle of inner city Philadelphia, the film also carries a very strong family drama element that serves to be its beating heart. Very much a coming of age tale for Cole, we see him grappling with feelings of first love, a tough relationship with a previously absent father, and the familiar tension between the influence of old, problematic friends versus the influence of new, more positive role models in a young person’s life. Concrete Cowboy does not present some idealised version of horse loving individuals in a protected sort of inner city bubble. Themes of drug culture and gang warfare are a constant threat to the lives of people in the area, as is the wider element of gentrification that is slowly wearing away at the urban equestrian lifestyle.
At under two hours in length, Concrete Cowboy does a really good job of managing to touch on all of these different themes and narrative threads without feeling bloated. It’s not a perfect film, with perhaps some of the drug and gang culture related subplots feeling slightly ‘tropey’ in the wider context of the story, but for what it attempts to cover in a short time, it’s a really satisfying ride (no saddle needed!).
Up until Cats I would have told you that Idris Elba could do no wrong, but thankfully his attentions are turned to a different kind of animal here! As Harp, he plays a very recognisable kind of stoic, noble, yet flawed father figure. It’s a character type that we have seen a million times before, but the quality of Elba’s acting along with the relatively ‘unconventional’ context of his equestrian background makes the role feel fresher than other examples. There is an effortless charisma in everything that Idris Elba does, and it’s on full display here for sure.
As Cole, Caleb McLaughlin is a far cry from the young Dungeons and Dragons playing kid in Stranger Things! McLaughlin has a lot to get across with his character, essentially tasked with bridging the gap between conventional inner city experience and this weird but wonderful world that he is thrust into with his father and the Philadelphia horse community. He gets the angst thing just right throughout, giving the audience just enough petulance and bravado without becoming unlikable, before mellowing into something more developed to highlight the real growth that Cole’s character experiences.
Much like Nomadland, Concrete Cowboy makes use of real figures from its subject matter to achieve a great level of authenticity. Many of the supporting roles in the film are played by real Philadelphia horse riders, and just like in Nomadland, these performers prove to be some of the most likeable and memorable. On the professional side of things, other characters are further fleshed out by actors like Clifford ‘Method Man’ Smith and the always amazing Lorraine Toussaint. It’s a great ensemble cast will all levels of experience coming together to achieve a wonderful community chemistry.
Overall, Concrete Cowboy looks and feels like a really special movie. Not entirely laser focused on its strongest assets, but a wonderful addition to a classic American cinematic narrative this is so usually *not* this. Cowboys, as it turns out, are not just down in Texas, in black and white, having shootouts in saloons. They are very much still here, very much still trying to preserve their heritage, and very much deserving of feature film attention. A rewarding experience all round!