Concrete Cowboy is about a different kind of urban cowboy — in this case, an outcast Black teenager who finds an unlikely home amongst a group of horse aficionados in a Philadelphia ghetto. Nicely acted and sympathetic in every way, Ricky Staub’s directorial debut has nonetheless bridled himself with an entirely on-the-nose scenario that spells everything out and deals with all issues at hand in a very predictable way.
It’s well known that a great many Black cowboys — far more than were ever represented in movies — ranged the Old West during the latter half of the 19th century; the Smithsonian puts its estimate at 25%, or roughly double the percentage of Black citizens of the United States at large. Rather less known has been the existence of Black riding clubs in American urban centers, which is no doubt why Staub and co-writer Dan Walser, working from the Greg Neri’s book Ghetto Cowboy, seized on the idea.
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Cole (Caleb McLaughlin, of TV’s Stranger Things) is circling the drain at home; the 15-year-old is in trouble at school and his single mother is entirely fed up; “You’re going to drown,” she screams at him before sending him off to Philly to spend the summer with his long-absent father.
At first glance, the slums of Philadelphia don’t look any more conducive to a proper upbringing than home did. Perhaps less so, for smack dab in the middle of Dad’s junk-strewn apartment is a big live horse. But dealing with the horse seems easier than contending with Dad (Idris Elba), a tough nut who’s so unwelcoming that Cole ends up sleeping in the stable.
Advising the new arrival that “hard things come before good things,” an attentive neighbor woman Nessi (Lorraine Toussaint) puts the kid to work in the stables, a fate the urban teenager was certainly not anticipating. But it turns out that Dad, whose name is Harp, runs The Fletcher Street Stables, and much of the life on this block revolves around the horses and the nice big park across the street.
It almost goes without saying that entry-level work at this operation consists of shoveling the you-know-what, which is exactly what the skinny New York kid does until winning his first stripes. A man in a wheelchair shows Cole the ropes and warns him about local gangstas, and soon the newcomer begins to develop a regard for the big animals and feel a sense of accomplishment about what he’s learned over a short period of time.
A greater threat than the stock hoodlum characters is the city government, which has already diminished the horse activity in the area and, with an eye on future real estate action, now looks to get rid of the animals entirely. Although big money and “progress” win almost every time in cases like this, some sort of compromise is indicated in the end credits.
The film’s clear raison d’etre is to promote the opportunity for inner-city youth to access alternative activities, to experience more of the world and be exposed to new people and varied interests.
It’s a noble aim, to be sure. But through the film’s second half, you can guess at nearly everything that’s going to happen — and then it does.
Fortunately, all the main actors are engaging at the very least and powerful when they need to be. Then there’s the sight of horses, and those who love, ride, train and parade them around big city streets, something so anachronistic now that it provides a quietly unique charm. It’s all a bit cornball, and so is the movie.
Concrete Cowboys premiered on September 13 at the Toronto Film Festival.