Based on the novel Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri, Concrete Cowboy is a boy-and-his-horse coming of age tale set within the world of urban horsemanship. Urban cowboys gained increased visibility this summer as many urban cowboy groups turned up at protests across the country, a seemingly incongruous spectacle that is actually rooted in a long history of Black cowboys keeping horses within city limits. Concrete Cowboys is set in North Philadelphia, home of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, and it is there that Cole (Stranger Things’ Caleb McLaughlin, looking completely grown up) reconnects with his estranged father, Harp (Idris Elba). Cole is sent to stay with Harp after almost being expelled from school in Detroit, and at first, he resents this. He resents being sent away, he resents any semblance of authority, and he resents that Harp makes him share the living room with a horse.
Harp is the de facto leader of a network of riders stabling their horses on Fletcher Street, in a ramshackle barn where neighborhood kids learn to care for the animals and ride. Looking for a place to crash, Cole ends up spending a night in a stall with Boo, a cranky horse no one can ride. Since Cole bonds with Boo, he begins learning how to care for the horse, including mucking stalls, which he does one shovel at a time (horse people will self-identify by laughing). Showing him the way are Nessie (Lorraine Toussaint) and Paris (real-life Fletcher Street rider Jamil Prattis), while Harp maintains a distance that doesn’t really help the film.
Concrete Cowboy could use a little more father-son time, but the film, which is directed by Ricky Staub and written by Staub and Dan Walser, both making their feature film debuts, splits its time between Cole and Harp, and Cole and his criminally-inclined cousin, Smush (Jharrel Jerome), who has his own dream of going west and buying a horse ranch. He’s trying to fund this dream by cutting into a local drug dealer’s business, which goes about how you expect. It is only Jerome’s irrepressible charisma and presence that lifts Smush’s plotline above the cliché. He is so winsome, you root for Smush even when you know he’s making enormous mistakes.
If Concrete Cowboy leans a little too hard into sentimentality at times, it’s forgivable. A character saying, “Horses aren’t the only thing that need breaking around here,” is the kind of schmaltz white boys and girls have been indulging in horse stories for decades, it’s only fair Black boys and girls get the same indulgence. Especially since here the horse relationship is grounded in a real-world culture that has survived despite attempts to whitewash history—25% of Old West cowboys were Black—and more recent gentrification destroying the remaining open city land for horses. The horse has always been a symbol of pride often incorporated in coming-of-age stories, but here horses also represent pride in community and in a subculture under constant threat of eviction.
Though it treads familiar coming-of-age ground, the spectacle of the urban horseman is enough to make Concrete Cowboy feel fresh, and the solid cast keeps it afloat. McLaughlin shows exactly to what extent Stranger Things has been wasting him—his performance stands up to both the Jharrel Jerome charm bomb and Idris Elba’s magnetic screen presence. Concrete Cowboy could be a little tighter and a little deeper and focus a little more clearly on the central father-son relationship, but it is still a perfectly passable coming-of-age tale with an interesting subculture twist.
You can support the real Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club here.