What is the urban cowboy subculture exactly? It’s not what you would expect. The first thing that came to this writer’s mind when I heard the term “urban cowboy” was the 1980 John Travolta film of the same name. You remember, the movie that popularized the use of the mechanical bull? Well, that’s not the kind of urban cowboy subculture we’re talking about in this film about a teen caught between a life of crime and exploring a new one — living the life of a cowboy.
Northern Philadelphia, the backdrop of the gritty drama about Black horsemanship in Concrete Cowboy directed by Ricky Staub, has made a home for real cowboys and cowgirls. Staub makes his feature directing debut after helming The Cage, a short that tells the story of survival in the streets of Philadelphia. Southern California also has its fair share of cowboys, as depicted in Walter Thompson-Hernandez’s book The Compton Cowboys.
Concrete Cowboy the film (also adapted from a novel: Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri) brings us bright and shining stars like Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin, Lorraine Toussaint, and Method Man. But the movie also includes real-life Philadelphia cowboys playing themselves in their respective roles. This additional layer adds more character depth to these authentic perspectives from actors reenacting their own subculture. Produced by Elba and Philadelphia native Lee Daniels, first-time director Ricky Staub made this loving tribute to his neighborhood along with the community members of the Fletcher Street Stables.
The story of Concrete Cowboy begins with Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), a troubled 15-year-old who gets expelled from yet another Detroit school. His mother, who is at the end of her rope at this point, makes the tough decision to drive 600 miles east to drop him on his father’s doorstep.
Cole doesn’t want to stay with his father and even asks his neighbor (Lorraine Toussaint) for help, but she refuses to let him in. Lonely and with no other family, Cole reluctantly connects with his estranged father in spite of the circumstances they find themselves in.
Harp (Idris Elba) is a man who enjoys his solitude and has few words when giving context about why he has been absent from Cole’s life. However, he expresses himself and his relationship with Cole through his affection for horses, while spending his days at Fletcher Street stables down the block. An urban cowboy himself, Harp represents a community of Black urban riders that dates back more than 100 years.
As you can imagine, the relationship between father and son is quite frigid at first. Each has difficulty expressing how they feel about the past and even the present. Cole is clearly upset that his mother left him with his father, whom he barely knows. And Harp only knows to put Cole to work in the stables and keep him busy as a way not to have to deal with him face-to-face. They’ve each shut down in their own way.
Cole does find some solace in one particular horse that has a bit of a short temper. The horse is unique and not quite like the others, yet Cole is attracted to him, and that’s where the metamorphosis begins in Cole’s character development as well as this intriguing story. Cole begins to reprioritize his life as the stables themselves are threatened by encroaching gentrification.
As with every story, there comes a character who challenges the protagonist’s morality. That brings us to Smush, brilliantly played by Jharrel Jerome.
Smush is an old childhood friend of Cole’s, but unfortunately he reels Cole back into the bad habits of his past with mischief. Smush decides he wants Cole to help him push his drug dealing, and Cole has to decide whether he wants to maintain his friendship or stay obedient to his father.
Concrete Cowboy is a redemption story through and through. Cole is trying to get back on track and stay away from a life of crime, and his father Harp is trying to make up for being an absentee dad. These three-dimensionally complex characters and relationships are a good recipe for a movie about cowboys.
There is also something beautiful and metaphorical about the horses in this film, too. The one Cole bonds with is a horse that needs to be tamed, a horse that needs time, love, and patience, a horse that needs to be dealt with. That was missing from Cole’s life. We see that reflected through his relationship with managing not only the horses and cleaning the stables but also building a rapport with the other cowboys — and a cowgirl.
Cole finds love in the midst of all of this and that is certainly a sweet surprise for this up-and-coming cowboy.
With Concrete Cowboy, expect to experience beautiful performances all around, but more importantly, you’ll also get a refreshing story about a subculture that you’ve likely never seen on celluloid. It’s more than enough to redeem the term “urban cowboy” to what it’s truly all about: a genuine subculture of cowboys and cowgirls whose legacy will be indelibly printed in your mind and imagining forever.
Concrete Cowboy made its premiere at the 45th annual Toronto International Film Festival.
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online community for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She's the primary film critic for BGN and is a member of the Critics Choice Association.