‘Concrete Cowboy’ relies on cast, scenery for interest

The new Netflix film about a close-knit group of urban cowboys gets slowed down by its story.

By Anna Kochman

The word ‘cowboy’ is fraught with imagery — boots, horses and ubiquitous white men roaming the Wild West.

The Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, Black cowboys clad in Air Jordans riding up and down the streets of North Philadelphia, don’t quite fit that mold. They’re the real-life subjects of “Concrete Cowboy,” which aired on Netflix April 2.

“Concrete Cowboy” stars familiar faces like Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin of “Stranger Things,” but it also features real members of the riding club, a non-profit organization that aims to care for and ride horses in an urban area. It provides mentoring and training services to youth in the community.

The film fictionalizes the organization and its culture into a gripping but often predictable narrative. The rebellious Cole (McLaughlin) is sent to live on Fletcher Street with his estranged father Harp (Elba), who’s a member of the Fletcher Street riders. Throughout the film, Cole must simultaneously learn to care for horses and repair his relationship with his dad.

Elba, along with the thematic elements that come with “urban cowboys,” keep the film’s slow-moving plot interesting. As Harp, Elba stands back and lets McLaughlin shine in his first feature-film role, but also brings a sturdy, caring, fatherly presence into his life. Harp’s natural chemistry with the other riders creates a sense of comfort and family amid the chaos of Cole’s new life.

The imagery of the urban cowboys is novel for audiences who are likely far removed from the film’s subjects. Scenes are littered with shots of riders’ silhouettes on horseback in front of gorgeous Philly sunsets, right next to shots of Cole and his friend Smush (Jharrel Jerome) driving through the city streets and smoking amid flashing lights. The filmmakers leverage the novelty of the setting to keep the energy up.

But sometimes the film gets bogged down by its plot. “Concrete Cowboy” gets off to a slow start — Cole’s mother deposits him with his father after a disciplinary incident at his high school, and a considerable portion of the film shows Cole roaming the streets, looking for shelter after he decides he doesn’t want to live with Harp.

The film’s explanation of the Fletcher Street riders’ history is clunky. The riders sit in a circle around a bonfire and discuss how Hollywood whitewashed cowboys. Their conversation is necessary, but feels like a fabricated move by the filmmakers to educate the audience.

Other times, though, the story speeds up dramatically, as Cole learns to ride and groom a horse like a natural. He develops a relationship with Esha (Ivannah-Mercedes), one of the riders, in record time.

The pacing, imagery and explanation of the riders leave the viewer confused. After the credits rolled, it dawned on me — “Concrete Cowboy” desperately wants to be a documentary about the real-life riders. The Fletcher Street stables make for a beautiful setting, and the topic is interesting without a movie plot. Cole is a believable character, but he doesn’t add much to the film itself.

As a documentary, “Concrete Cowboy” might have held my interest. The rich and storied history of urban cowboys in North Philly would have likely emerged from interviews with the Fletcher Street riders, rather than from contrived conversations around a bonfire.

That said, the film is still worth watching. Elba anchors the plot, McLaughlin shows off his acting chops and it sheds light on one of the most interesting topics on Netflix in a long time.

Edited by Chloe Konrad | ckonrad@themaneater.com

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