As the credits roll on Concrete Cowboy I grab my phone, open Youtube, and immediately type in “Philadelphia Cowboys”. It was a world I never knew existed and one I desperately needed to learn more about. Black Cowboys in the streets of North Philly?! What?! It seemed like something written for the screen, the same allure that probably hit director/writer Ricky Staub as he set out to make his debut feature. The majesty of this niche group of Black horse riders is captured in every frame of Concrete Cowboy, and in part, it’s the superglue for a film that was unsure of itself from the script stage.
Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) won’t stop getting into fights at school and his mother is fed up. Harp (Idris Elba), Cole’s father, has offered to take him for the summer despite being absent for most of his life, transplanting Cole from Detroit to a North Philadelphia neighborhood where his father along with a crew of others like him are urban cowboys, the Fletcher Street Riders. Filled with anger and desperation Cole looks for a way out eventually running into an old family friend named Smush (Jharrel Jerome), an ex-member of the Riders who seeks something more than what Fletcher Street has to offer.
Featuring a handful of actual Fletcher Street Riders, the film circles an authenticity to the culture that it lacks in its paint by the numbers storytelling. The real life actors always make you feel like you’re learning with Cole – your own look into the ebb and flow of being a Rider. It’s an education you never knew you wanted from an unlikely group, and while the film attempts to highlight the systematic oppression of the “Black Cowboy” it’s never quite clear what the central conflict of the story is. In fact, it’s quite obvious that the film doesn’t know what it’s central conflict is at all, which manages to be its fatal fault.
The performances in this film go a long way to push this story past the cliche “boy and his horse” tale we end up landing on. Caleb McLaughlin is given the opportunity to show just how much range he has and he rises to the occasion. There is one particular scene between himself and Idris Elba where they’ve reached a breaking point in their absentee relationship, and while the writing falls short in the setup of the moment, McLaughlin manages to rip your heart out, bringing more than the page to the screen. The same sentiment is fortified in Jharrel Jerome’s turn as Smush, a character central to the story that is riddled with holes yet finds life through performance. And while he takes the lead position in the credits, Idris operates in the back of the film with a stirring performance that’s paired with accent work that I couldn’t get past. He brings a confidence to Harp that paints the picture of the gravity he creates around him. More present in the story is Lorraine Toussaint who has never seemed more at home among the real life actors of Fletcher Street. Finally, there is Method Man as the undeniably charming cowboy cop of the neighborhood. The appeal of the character rests squarely on his shoulders, and his charisma leaves you wanting so much more; one can only hope that producers and directors take notice.
Captured with warmth and majesty cinematographer, Minka Farthing-Kohl, and the film’s director, Ricky Staub, bring a splendor to the streets of Philadelphia and the stables of Fletcher Street. The grace of the picture walks in stride with the haunting but hopeful score from Kevin Matley, which is one of the stand out pieces from the festival. Together they paint a sublime picture of the culture, filling in the emotional gaps that the script creates, and keep you tethered to film the whole way through.
All things considered, Concrete Cowboy shouldn’t work as well as it does, but the film really does grab you. Staub’s love for the community is clear, and he does a fantastic job bringing Riders to the forefront, but it’s characters and his story get lost in the vines of an underdeveloped script.