Directed by: Ricky Staub. Starring: Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin, Lorraine Toussaint. Runtime: 1h 51 min. Released: This film premiered at TIFF as part of the Gala Presentations on Sept. 13, 2020.
When picking the films I wanted to watch for this year’s TIFF, I picked Ricky Staub’s Concrete Cowboy because of Idris Elba. I’m glad I picked this one because I just loved the power in this story, written by Ricky Staub and Dan Walser, inspired by Gregory Niri’s book Ghetto Cowboy.
Caleb McLaughlin stars as Cole, a teen who is getting constant fights while living in Detroit. Fed up, his mom sends him to live with his father Harp (Idris Elba) in Northern Philadelphia, where Cole becomes immersed in the world of urban horseback riding.
The coolest aspect of this film is learning about Fletcher Street in modern-day Philadelphia, as we see cars on the street, but also horses. It’s a slice-of-life film that totally compels and it’s a part of Philadelphia I knew nothing about.
There’s an authenticity in this story, too, especially with real-life Fletcher Street cowboy Jamil “Mil” Prattis having a role here as a character called Paris, whose backstory of how he ended up in his wheelchair adds a teaching moment for Cole. Prattis is a stand-out in this supporting role.
Every situation in this film feels real-life, as Cole has to make a decision that is the main hook of the narrative. Cole has to decide between bettering his life in this culture of horseback riding or ride down a different route entirely with the street life, tempted by his childhood friend Smush (Jharrel Jerome), who’s deep in the drug dealing scene of Philadelphia.
Caleb McLaughlin shines as Cole. It’s nice to see McLaughlin do so well outside of Stranger Things, as the character is well-written but McLaughlin truly makes him his own. His backstory of being sent away from a more dangerous area to Philadelphia feels like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (albeit the opposite, being moved from Philadelphia to Bel-Air) and I’m only making that comparison as there is some powerful acting here from McLaughlin that reminded me of early career Will Smith on that show. McLaughlin Is the heart of the film, but Idris Elba is great as his father, too, teaching him to become immersed in this culture and that this is the much better option.
He teaches his son responsibility by having him shovel shit from the stables, and then he can ride. There, at Fletcher Street, Cole bonds with a horse called Boo that is wild and aggressive towards everyone else but let’s Cole sleep in his stall at the stable one night. “I see Daniel lying there in the lion’s den, sleeping side by side,” says Nessy. “It means Boo is yours.”
Nessy is an owner of the Fletcher Street Stables played by Lorraine Toussaint, who is a delight to watch. She’s one of the many great characters in this film that makes this so fun, as the dialogue is always entertaining. The aspect of this film where horses can give purpose is just lovely, done as well in Laure de Clermont-Tonnere’s The Mustang where a prisoner is rehabilitated with the help of a wild mustang. Caleb McLaughlin’s Cole is not nearly as angry or violent as Matthias Schoenaerts’ criminal in that film, but the sentiment and purpose of the horse is the same; helping them along a better path.
Just the way the writing shows how important these horses are to the teens growing up on Fletcher Street, and still how important they are to them as adults, is incredibly moving. “The only home I’ve known is on the back of a horse,” says Harp, and that really encapsulates the sense of belonging depicted here.
It’s also nice here watching Cole’s attitude change from negative about his situation to more open, and that happens naturally in the writing. There’s also so much power in conversations with his father and their relationship, as well as the a potent underlying story of giving Black teens a purpose in Philadelphia and a different outlet than going out and getting in trouble.
There are challenging discussions within this film about that – like when Nessy says Hollywood has white-washed cowboys as 50 per cent of cowboys are Black. These discussions make the film raw at times, while also being discussed with banter and humour. I love films that can be challenging and funny the next second, and the dialogue here really impressed me.
While the drug dealing aspect of the film feels trope-y because so many films have done it before Concrete Cowboy, the scenes about their culture feel so fresh. The premise intrigued me but it’s the heart and emotion of the film, especially a story about John Coltrane, that really won me over here.