Idris Elba is an actor I’ve always admired. Whether he’s speaking with power and passion as Nelson Mandela or declaring himself Black Superman in “Hobbs & Shaw”. He has always possessed both leading man charisma and supporting role restraint. He uses a little of both in the new Netflix drama “Concrete Cowboy”, directed by Ricky Staub from a screenplay by Staub and Dan Walser. The film is based on the 2011 young adult novel “Ghetto Cowboy” by Greg Neri. Elba plays the estranged father of a troubled teen and brings just the right amount of gravitas and sincerity.
“Concrete Cowboy” tells a story set within the free-spirited horseriding subculture of Philadelphia’s inner-city. These modern-day urban cowboys from predominantly African-American communities (such as the Fletcher Street Riding Club) mentor youth and offer them an alternative to the dangerous street life. Staub’s film shines eye-opening light on this compelling pocket of humanity and the performances fill his film with character and heart. Yet this is a very by-the-numbers coming-of-age story and within 10 minutes you’ll have a good idea of where it’s going and how it will end.
Elba is a key player but the film’s lead is Caleb McLaughlin (“Stranger Things”). He plays 15-year-old Cole, a wayward teen living in Detroit with his working single mother Amahle (Liz Priestley). After Cole is expelled from school following yet another fight, a helpless and heartbroken Amahle picks him up from school and drives him straight to Philadelphia. There she drops him off with two garbage bags full of clothes at his father’s place downtown and then drives away in tears. Staub wastes no time introducing us to this low-income yet richly cultured neighborhood where the rest of the movie is set. In fact, one of the real strengths is the film’s ability to capture a strong sense of place and community.
Cole and his father Harp (Elba) don’t exactly hit it off. Harp is a no-nonsense guy with strict take-it-or-leave-it house rules. Cole pushes back and ends up reconnecting with a shady childhood friend named Smush (a very good Jharrel Jerome). But Cole is also introduced to his father’s passion – horses and the small group of neighborhood riders who make up their club. And this forms the dichotomy Cole will wrestle with for most of the movie – two vastly different lifestyles with significantly different outlooks pulling him in opposite directions.
The movie is at its best when it’s sitting us down with the riders and letting us listen to their playful banter and personal stories. Or when it allows us to tag along and watch Cole’s challenging initiation into Harp’s group. We get to meet some interesting characters in these scenes, none better than Lorraine Toussaint’s Nessie, a wise and tough-loving mother figure with her finger on the neighborhood’s pulse. Her stables are a safe haven from the allure of street-life and the balm that help heal the film’s central father/son relationship. Staub also casts some real-life Fletcher Street riders who add a noticeable layer of authenticity to the stable scenes.
The film’s predictability turns out to be its biggest weakness. Not a single plot point, story beat, or character angle will surprise you. Instead it’s the vibrant community setting that feels fresh and unexplored. There’s something to watching Idris Elba and his fellow urban cowboys stoically riding their horses, not across an open rolling plain, but through cramped inner-city streets. And you never doubt it for a second. This is just one of many segments of Black America with stories waiting to be told. And as surreal as it sometimes looks and sounds, this horseback riding culture has for decades fought for its very existence. Staub captures that unique essence even though the particulars of the story he’s telling are nothing new. “Concrete Cowboy” is now streaming on Netflix.
VERDICT – 3 STARS