Idris Elba Rides the North Philly Range in ‘Concrete Cowboy’

A subculture comes to life in this Netflix urban melodrama

I saw the Concrete Cowboy movie. This is a fictional narrative about a real place, the Fletcher Street stables in North Philadelphia, the last remaining outpost of a culture of Black urban Philly cowboys. Idris Elba plays an ex-con sanitation worker who’s the spiritual center of this culture, which is constantly under threat of gentrification. He lives in a raggedy townhouse with a horse named Chuck. His troubled teenage son, played by Caleb McLaughlin from Stranger Things, comes to stay with him for the summer to learn the Way of the Horse and How to Be A Man.

★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Ricky Staub
Written by: Ricky Staub, Dan Walser
Starring:  Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin, Jharrel Jerome, Lorraine Toussaint
Running time: 111 min

Concrete Cowboy doesn’t exactly break fresh narrative or stylistic ground. The son, Cole, is torn between the horses and an old street friend of his named Smush, who likes the horses but is trying to make enough money selling drugs to move out west to buy a ranch. You can imagine how that goes. There are plenty of annoying scenes of people doing things in slow-motion while dreary music plays in the background. The narrative lopes along.

On the other hand, McLaughlin gives a fine, naturalistic performance, as does Jharrel Jerome as Smush. Idris Elba sulks around in his muscle-T and cowboy hat, a blunt hanging from his lips like a smokeable toothpick. If Elba is your primary thirst trap, there’s plenty of good material in Concrete Cowboy. The screenplay, though it does follow some predictable beats, also takes time to linger over the themes. There’s a nice long urban campfire scene 40 minutes in where the cast talks about the history of Black cowboys, and also about the history of the Black Philly stable culture and how development has destroyed it. There are no cutaways, just smart, almost documentary-like conversation.

And there’s a reason for that. Like the Oscar-nominated Nomadland, Concrete Cowboy features several supporting characters who aren’t actors, but are actual real Philly cowboys. These aren’t just gimmick cameos, either, they feature prominently in several subplots. One young woman even serves as Cole’s legitimate love interest. I don’t know whether I find this trend of using “real” people as actors interesting, or annoying, but it gives Concrete Cowboy a realistic feel that might otherwise be lacking.

Concrete Cowboy makes good use of its Philly locations. It is the Philliest movie since Creed, but doesn’t have that film’s glitzy aspirations. It neither glorifies or talks down to its subjects, but gives a nice spotlight to a legit subculture of urban cowboys. Like Nomadland, it feels like an alt-weekly article come to life. Considering that it’s doing quite well on Netflix among all the dross, that’s not such a bad thing. Idris Elba in a cowboy hat is going to draw in a lot of viewers.

This concludes my review of the Concrete Cowboy movie.


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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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