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Concrete Cowboy, the film starring Idris Elba that filmed locally in 2019 and debuted on Netflix this past weekend, is the latest entry in the Philadelphia film tradition. But it's set in a part of the city, as well as a specific subculture, that's rarely if ever been depicted by Hollywood's cameras.
The film, the feature directorial debut of the young filmmaker Ricky Staub, is set in a fictionalized version of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club. It's an organization that's been around for more than a century, dedicated to keeping alive the tradition of Black horsemanship in North Philadelphia while also providing mentorship to young people in the area.
Sent to Philly
Concrete Cowboy, based on a 2011 young-adult novel by Greg Neri called Ghetto Cowboy, is set within that milieu and centers on an often-heartbreaking father-son story. Caleb McLaughlin (best known until now from the Netflix series Stranger Things) plays Cole, a 15-year-old who's gotten in some trouble while living with his mother in Detroit.
In a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reversal, his mother sends him to Philadelphia to live with family. He’s to spend the summer with his father, Harp (Elba), the leader of the riding club in North Philadelphia, about a mile east of Fairmount Park.
It's also a premiere similar to that of John Singleton's 1991 Boyz n the Hood, in which a Black teenager goes to live with his father and gets a lesson in manhood. But this house looks a little different. For one thing, there's a horse living in it.
The story follows Cole’s temptations to crime by his cousin Smush (Jharrel Jerome, of Moonlight and When They See Us), and efforts by the police and animal control to shut down the club—something that really happened back in 2008.
What's especially striking in Concrete Cowboy is that Staub and cinematographer Minka Farthing-Kohl take this oft-neglected location and shoot it absolutely beautifully, especially in the many scenes shot at night. It takes a bit of a cue from the way David Simon and his team shot West Baltimore on The Wire (which also starred Elba) with plenty of natural light on the streets at night. But at times, the filmmakers also make it look something like a Western—especially in the film's best scene, in which Cole has to calm a horse on a baseball field in front of a crowd.
This is a different type of strong Idris Elba performance. It's subtle, quiet work, in the tradition of onscreen cowboys of all kinds. The film also introduces us to a lived-in cast of characters around the club, including some played by the real members. One of them, the paraplegic Jamil “Mil” Prattis, tells a sad and funny story about when he was shot on a street corner and what happened there later.
Concrete Cowboy debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, and in a non-pandemic alternate reality, it would have been a great movie to see on a big screen, somewhere local, with an enthusiastic audience. But there’s a tradeoff, as this film about cowboys in North Philadelphia has risen, deservedly, to the number two spot on Netflix's US Top 10 list in the days since its debut.
Image description: A scene from Concrete Cowboy. Six people, two Black women and four Black men of different ages, sit astride calm horses standing in a row. They’re all wearing cowboy hats. Actors Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin are at the center. They have serious expressions. Behind the horses are a scruffy green field, trees, and a brick apartment building.
What, When, Where
Concrete Cowboy, directed by Ricky Staub, written by Staub and Dan Walser, adapted from the novel Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri. Available to stream now on Netflix.
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