26 September 2023

Concrete Cowboy

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Reviewed by Rama Gaind.

Director: Ricky Staub, Netflix.

It’s an urban western, and its lead star Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Luther) is riding his way through what is not a surprising journey. However, it is one that’s not so readily told.

The concept of a black cowboy will not seem unusual, if you know your history. They’re part of a rich American story that spans centuries and is seldom delved into in cinema or in reality. Concrete Cowboy explores a more recent iteration of this culture, the black ‘urban cowboys’ who have populated north Philadelphia for the past 100 years.

As Elba tells it: “For a long time, there’s been a real sort of mistelling of history around Black people and horses and cowboys and whatnot”.

“It feels really apt to be able to tell a part-history that’s been definitely buried, and in the case of Concrete Cowboy, that history is right now. Those stables — they face being taken away forever and, I’m hoping … they keep the stables, based on the fact that people fall in love with the story and history and heritage of the stables.”

The western drama is directed by Ricky Staub from a screenplay by Staub and Dan Walser. Its story is based upon the novel Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri, which is a fictionalisation of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, an urban African-American horse riding culture in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Along with Elba, the film stars Caleb McLaughlin (Stranger Things), Jharrel Jerome, Byron Bowers, Lorraine Toussaint (Hudson Hawk, Dangerous Minds) and Clifford ‘Method Man’ Smith.

It follows 15-year-old Cole (McLaughlin), who discovers the world of urban horseback riding when his mother sends him to live with his estranged father, Harp (Elba) in north Philadelphia. This is where his two worlds collide and he struggles to come to terms by being forced to spend time with a man he hardly knows, in a living arrangement that leaves much to be desired.

Concrete Cowboy is an inspiring film that encourages you to see the bright side of life. It’s a heartfelt acknowledgement, a reclamation and tribute to a long lineage of frontiersmen.

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