CONCRETE COWBOY – Cherry at TIFF20 Review

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Mommy and Daddy’s do let your sons grow up to be cowboys (and your daughters too)

My mind was set on fire when I saw the poster for Concrete Cowboy I imagined it would be a gritty coming of age story about a boy and a horse in the spirit of ‘The Black Stallion’. I was struck by the decision to have an undercurrent of drugs/drug dealing that I felt distracted from a film that should have been simply about a rebellious Black teenage boy getting to know his father for the first time while learning how to care for a skittish horse (parallels between him and the fathers such a lost opportunity). I found the drug dealing a bit distracting especially when I realized who the director and writer turned out to be two White men. But I understand why Ricky Staub and Dan Walser felt that added an additional layer to the drama about a Black kid finding himself in Philadelphia. It is often the default for a lot of films with Black men and boys written by White men who seem to have a cursory knowledge and interaction with Black people often from negative images from entertainment and biased new service. Not only do they write what they ‘know’ will sell but a lack of awareness about rich Africam American life.

Idris Elba is the marque name but Caleb McLaughlin is the star of Concrete Cowboy. Caleb holds his own with a roster of Black actors with decades of experience as he plays a troubled kid trying to find his own path after burning one too many bridges in a film directed by Ricky Staub making his feature debut with screenwriter Dan Walser from the 2011 YA novel Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri. A novel about the urban equestrian tradition in Philadelphia with the Fletcher Street Stables that nurtures young riders and adults that is struggling with gentrification. African Americans have been erased from the American history of cowboys in books and movies/tv well Concrete Cowboy gives us a history lesson. 

Cole (Caleb McLaughlin, Lucas in Netflix’s Stranger Things) plays a rebellious teenage boy in Detroit who’s mother Amahle (Liz Priestley) is at her wits end after getting kicked out of school for fighting again. Amahle decides he needs the guidance of his father Harp (Idris Elba) in North Philadelphia for the summer to ‘knock some sense’ into him to get on the right path. While in North Philly Cole is torn between the love of a horse and the cowboy life vs the pull of fast money dealing drugs with Smush (Jharrel Jerome) trying to make his own fate. The film for me gets derailed every time Cole is drawn back to that path I find it draws away from the connection to be made when we’re focused on the Fletcher Street Stables, gentrification and Cole growing up. 

I enjoyed the film it has a meandering pace with fast action that breaks it up and creates a definite line between the life Cole can live. I wish it had explored the growing relationship between Cole, Harp and the horse more of a coming of age not just for the teenage boy but all Harp who is trying to do the right thing by the stables and the boy dropped into his life after his falling out with Amahle (not that I blamed her) instead of the drug storyline. I can’t help but wonder why the interjected that in the film and didn’t seem to realize how jarring it could be to the viewer. Not all Black kids who are rebellious and acting out want to be a drug dealer.

I enjoyed the film and loved the moments of the cast gathering around the fire talking cowboys and horses, the look of a mother choosing what’s best for her child, and a boy who discovers himself with a wild horse. It could have been a classic troubled kid who finds redemption with a horse story but the drug story kept taking me out of the movie. I really wanted to stay at the stables with the horses and Black cowboys. But it’s a solidly written, directed, and acted film that kept me very intrigued with this redemption story. I was even more delighted at the end while rolling credits that a few of the real-life cowboys AND cowgirls talked about what the stables meant to them growing up and as an adult. I hope the film inspires people to donate to them so that they are able to buy the stables outright and continue to offer this haven to the people of Philadelphia because who doesn’t want to be a cowboy?

CONCRETE COWBOY 

DIRECTOR: Ricky Staub

WRITERS: Ricky Staub, Dan Walser

STARRING: Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin, Jharrel Jerome, Lorraine Toussaint, Cliff Smith, Byron Bowers

PRODUCERS: Idris Elba, Lee Daniels, Jennifer Madeloff, Tucker Tooley, Dan Walser, Jeff Waxman

EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Greg Ren

2020 / United States / English / 111 minutes

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