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Idris Elba stars in Concrete Cowboy, about the Black urban cowboys of Philadelphia

The Netflix drama also stars Stranger Things’ Caleb McLaughlin in a tale of city horsewrangling.

A man and a teenaged boy on horses on a Philadelphia street.
Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin in Concrete Cowboy.
Aaron Ricketts/Netflix
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

There are seven horses living in a stable on Fletcher Street in North Philadelphia, which is probably not the first place most people expect to find them. It’s there that Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, led by founder Ellis Ferrell and a team of volunteers, aims to teach local youth about riding and caring for horses while also preserving a “century-long tradition of Urban Black Cowboys,” as the club’s website puts it.

And they’re facing some real challenges. The club is currently struggling financially, thanks to the pandemic — the land is paid off, but the cost of operating stables is ongoing. Additionally, the Philadelphia Housing Authority plans to turn nearby Fletcher Field, in which the horses graze and young people learn to ride, into a housing development.

The real Fletcher Street cowboys, the horses they love, and the challenges they face provide the setting for the fictional film Concrete Cowboy, which in turn is based on G. Neri’s award-winning 2011 YA novel Ghetto Cowboy. The story centers on teenaged Cole (Caleb McLaughlin, from Stranger Things), who lives with his mom and can’t stop getting into fights at school. At her wits’ end, she drives Cole to his father’s house in Philadelphia and leaves him literally on the doorstep, hoping that someone else can get through to Cole and help put him on the right path.

Cole’s father Harp (Idris Elba) — who Cole hasn’t seen in a decade — is a part of the Fletcher Street community, and he’s a proud Black cowboy. A horse literally lives in his house. Harp spends his days working at the stables and his nights sitting around a campfire with other Fletcher Street cowboys, drinking beer and talking about the ways white folks wiped the memory and image of the Black cowboy from history. They want to preserve it, to make sure America can’t forget where cowboys came from. Most nights, the group is joined by the stables’ fictional owner, Nessie (Lorraine Toussaint), who watches over the local teenagers with strong, tough love.

Six Black riders sit astride horses, with a public housing building visible in the background.
Ivannah-Mercedes, Lorraine Toussaint, Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin, Jamil “Mil” Prattis, and Cliff “Method Man” Smith in Concrete Cowboy.
Jessica Kourkounis / Netflix

Harp and Cole butt heads. Cole is not used to horses or dirty work, and Harp isn’t really sure what to do with this teenaged son who’s just showed up at his home. Yet there’s love between them. Cole keeps hanging out with his childhood friend Smush (Jharrel Jerome), but Harp is worried that Smush has fallen in with the wrong crowd and will take Cole with him. Harp knows a thing or two about what happens when you end up on the wrong road.

Slowly, Cole is drawn into the Fletcher Street cowboy community and starts to understand why reclaiming their history is so important. So what happens if its future is threatened by forces beyond their control?

The work of caring for, breaking, and riding horses is a powerful draw for filmmakers trying to capture something about being a human with an uncertain future — just in the recent past, films like The Rider and Lean on Pete drew from the same topical well. What makes Concrete Cowboy unique is the way it evokes cowboy imagery from the movies while also challenging the predominantly white Hollywood icon. There are gorgeous images throughout Concrete Cowboy, silhouettes against sunsets and golden light dappling Fletcher Field, that could be drawn from any number of movies about young people and their horses.

The screenplay, co-written by director Rick Staub and Dan Walser, is unfortunately a bit of a clunker, light on character development and heavy at times on what feels like clichéd shorthand, particularly in dialogue. Some of that clunkiness may come from trying to adapt a plot-driven book for teenagers into a poetic big-screen movie — and there’s a lot of poetry in the movie. But some story beats land better than others, and when Concrete Cowboy works it’s because the images themselves are magnificently reminiscent.

Because luckily, Staub can direct. The film looks and feels great even when it stumbles over its toes a little. The way we get to meander around the campfire, listening to stories; watch a teenager approach and tame a horse; see a quartet of cowboys riding alongside a train; feel the gut punch that follows a tragedy — each scene reveals keen, delicate craft that makes the screenplay feel even more like a mismatch. And the movie owes much to performances from Elba and especially McLaughlin, who is fantastic as an insecure, defiant young man who desperately wants to belong somewhere.

And then there’s the real-life Fletcher Street cowboys who appear in the film as versions of themselves, gently ribbing Cole and caring for the horses and trying to find a way forward in a world that doesn’t want them to keep going. Filmmakers the world over have often blended documentary elements into fictional narratives, from Italian neorealists to French New Wave directors to modern-day filmmakers. The Rider used a similar tactic to tell a horse story; its director, Chloé Zhao, repeated the technique in this year’s Best Picture nominee Nomadland.

The fictional story furnishes the narrative for Concrete Cowboy, but the real-life riders are its heart and soul. Despite its flaws, the film works because it’s not, in the end, contrived. It’s firmly rooted in truth — even if some of those truths have been buried. Concrete Cowboy is a coming-of-age story for Cole, but for those sitting around the campfire, it’s an old tale, another chapter in a history that they long to remember, protect, and pass on.

Concrete Cowboy premiered at the virtual 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. It begins streaming on Netflix on April 2.

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