In North Philadelphia, you are likely to see horses. More than likely, in fact: Go by the Fletcher Street stables, located in the middle of a string of residential houses and lots, during the daytime and you’ll catch those magnificent animals milling about near street corners and being trotted along the small patch of grass on the other side of the block. Head down there just after dusk and you’ll see cowboys. Real, honest-to-God cowboys, all black men and women, sitting around a version of a campfire. Some are drinking beer, some are talking trash, some are holding court about the “Hollywood John Wayne bullshit” myth that the folks who tamed the wild, wild West were across-the-board white. An older cowboy might break out his harmonica and play a tune (“trap music from the 1940s!”). They’re the last of a dying breed, protecting their particular edge of the frontier from lawlessness and gentrification. But in that moment, they are home, home on the inner-city range.
It’s these observational moments of a subculture that lift Concrete Cowboy, a coming-of-age drama set within Philly’s real world of modern-day horsemen and cowpokes, out of what sometimes feels like very, very familiar tough-love territory. (It begins streaming on Netflix today.) Our entry into this tucked-away group is Cole (Stranger Things‘ Caleb McLaughlin), a teenager who’s just been expelled from his Detroit high school for fighting. This isn’t the first time the kid’s been in trouble, but it’s the last time his mom will put up with it. So she tosses Cole’s clothes into a bag, throws him into a car, and drops him off at his dad’s house in Philadelphia in the dead of night. Pops isn’t home. His neighbor, Nessie (Lorraine Toussaint, reminding you why she’s one of the most reliable character actors in the business), tells Cole to go around the corner to the stables; that’s where the boy will find his father. He assumes that “stables” is a euphemism. It isn’t.
His dad, a man named Harp, is indeed there, and the fact that he’s played by Idris Elba as a rangy, ranch-friendly in a worn cowboy hat tells you everything you need to know in a single shot. (It’s the sort of introduction that makes you extremely glad that the British actor is starring in an actual Western, The Harder They Fall, that’s coming out some time before the end of the year.) There’s surprise, and a little happiness, and a whole lot of guilt in his eyes when he sees his son. The two go back to his cramped, cluttered two-story place, where Cole opens the door and is suddenly greeted by a horse in Dad’s living room. There are no boundaries between the domestic space and the environment where this kid will have to learn, per one of the movie’s many supporting characters, “You don’t have to get out to grow up.”
There are a lot of lines like that in Concrete Cowboy, courtesy of a script by director Ricky Staub and his co-writer Dan Walser — you’ll also hear characters say things like “Home ain’t a place, it’s a fam,” and “You say you’re a cowboy? You’re a coward!” Elba gets a few monologues, including one in which he explains why he was an absent father and how Cole get his name; it’s a good example of how an actor can crack open material that’s easy to imagine reading potentially flat or trite on a page. (His other brief speeches are proof that not even the greatest of performers can work miracles 100 percent of the time.) Undergirding the father-son bonding is the appearance of a devil on Cole’s shoulder, in the form of an old childhood friend named Smush (When They See Us‘s Jharrel Jerome) who’s making a name for himself on the streets, and tempts Cole into leaving behind the stability of the stables for something flashier. You can see tragedy approaching from miles away like it was a lone rider on the horizon, slowly trotting his way into town.
We’re not saying such stories don’t happen in America, nor that they, along with hundreds of other stories, don’t deserve to be told. It’s more that you can feel the movie slipping into a well-worn groove in those sections, and leaning into narrative curves that bear the dings and marks of dozens of other hard-knock-life dispatches. If you find yourself wishing Concrete Cowboy would get back to the more mundane business of Cole learning how to care for stallions and mares — two words: manure cam — it’s because that’s where the real meat of this movie is. As an at-risk teen drama, the film is passable. As a portrait of a community, it’s eye-opening.
Staub and Co. filmed in the actual spots where these folks lay their hats, and cast real-life Fletcher Street riders like Jamil Pratts, Ivannah Mercedes, Albert C. Lynch Jr., and Michael Upshur in key roles (Pratts in particular has an extraordinary screen presence). It’s a choice that doesn’t just steep his film in verisimilitude; it also gives the piece a deep, undeniable sense of genuine representation. Seeing Elba, McLaughlin, and other professionals like Method Man — playing the equivalent of the town sheriff, while also making the case that he, too, deserves to be in an old-fashioned horse opera stat — mix with these actual urban cowboys, you sense a bona fide respect for how these Philadelphians kept a neglected, sometimes persecuted tradition alive. And it’s the more documentary-like moments that give the movie a pulse. Even the subplots about the city trying to shut them down and talk of encroaching condos avoid feeling like someone’s trying to jam newspaper’s headlines into the cracks. Because, as an end-credits disclaimer tells us, that shit’s really happening and Fletcher Street is in real danger of seeing this subculture rustled into extinction.
That’s been the unfortunate legacy of black cowboys for centuries (don’t just take our word for it), and when you hear Toussaint reel off how the past — a specific, subjective, purposefully incomplete past — has practically whitewashed the mere notion of such range-riders out of existence, it doesn’t sound like a diatribe. It sounds like someone speaking truth to history. There are few sights more “American” than a cowboy perched on a steed, with a Stetson on their head and the evening’s fading light behind them. The question of who gets to claim that kind of iconography, and by extension a larger sense of heritage, is constantly, often frustratingly, still being debated. Concrete Cowboy adds one more voice to the chorus. The past ain’t even past. It’s still hitched to a post on Fletcher Street, and it should continue to be preserved.