Nowadays, watching a film with a setting that you haven’t heard of or seen before is saying a lot nowadays. It is even rarer to tell a story from a uniquely African American perspective and to make it available on Netflix. Why? Because it is currently the most popular, not just streaming platform, but studio in the world right now and for the foreseeable future. That’s what you have in Cowboy, a film with a familiar crowd-pleasing appeal and seen through the eyes of a different culture film fans are not used to.
Cowboy tells the story of a young man named Cole (played by Stranger Things’ Caleb McLaughlin). His mother, Amahle (Liz Priestley), can’t control him and she won’t tolerate his behavior anymore. She is scared that if she doesn’t act quickly her son will start misbehaving and jeopardize his chance of a decent future. There is a lot riding on this, no pun intended. Cole is at the age where he will start to carve out his own identity, for better or worst. So, she sends him to live with his estranged father, Harp (Idris Elba) for the summer. There, this rebellious teen is immersed in his father’s community of Black cowboys, who march to the beat of their own drum.
This is a Ricky Staub-directed film adapted from the book Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri. His book is a fictionalized telling of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, a non-profit organization devoted to inner-city horsemanship in north Philadelphia. There have been urban cowboys in the city of Philadelphia for over a century (several cities, including Detroit, actually), which makes one think that John Travolta’s and Jon Voight’s vehicles were just white-washed versions of the real thing and privileged audiences simply never noticed.
One would think this is a fictional story that depicts this subculture’s tradition and values without resorting to inner-city cliches and father/son tropes, but this isn’t a documentary after all, though that would have been more fascinating and even preferred. Staub has a real eye for juxtaposition here, showing cowboys raise horses through the streets of an inner city – the dilapidated neighborhood is eye-catching.
Yes, the subplot involving Elba’s Harp and McLaughlin’s Cole is nothing new, though the exploration of the African American father/son relationship is a worthy subject. And these two actors make it worth the watch. Elba always has a magnetic power on screen, while having these rare movie star looks that can still disappear into various roles. This is another good, solid role and he is quickly become a leading man who is not appreciated enough. The real surprise is McLaughlin, who proves he is capable of meaty roles and has a big career ahead of him. This is more than a child actor’s turn that may be hidden by a good editor. There is a real pathos he brings to Cole.
The crime subplot involving Moonlight’s Jharrel Jerome is standard, and you know where that storyline will end. Where Concrete Cowboy really shines are the scenes showing the Fletcher Street community coming together. Staub is smart enough to cast several real cowboys from the area to give his film an authentic feel that takes one to a world they didn’t know existed. Jamil “Mil” Prattis is only partially effective as Paris, a paraplegic cowboy. He has maintained horses on Fletcher Street for 15 years before being cast in Cowboy, and he’s a natural.
Concrete Cowboy, for all its uniqueness, can be quite an ordinary film because of its predictable plot and character interactions. The fact of the matter is that if you love movies you have to embrace the formula picture that is smart enough to know that audiences today will embrace a story like this. It’s a unique slice of African American culture that has an authentic look and feel while telling the timeless story of a relationship between a father and his son and involving the standard crime tropes as well.
Though, to put it frankly, it’s just a damn good movie.
“This is a film with a unique slice of life that has an authentic look and feel while telling a timeless story of fathers and sons.”