Written by Ricky Staub and Dan Walser
Starring Idris Elba, Lorraine Toussaint, Caleb McLaughlin
R | 1h 51min | Drama | 2020 (USA)
Review by Jeanne Powell
The real-life horsemen of Philadelphia and the Brooklyn-Queens area of New York inspired this amazing film. British actor Idris Elba plays lead character Harp and also is a producer of Concrete Cowboy, a Netflix movie.
Initially developed from a YA novel by Greg Neri, Concrete Cowboy focuses on a troubled youth in Detroit, who is sent to live with his estranged father in Philly for the summer. His mother Amahle (Liz Priestley) fears for his future since he keeps getting into trouble at school. With tears streaming down her face, Amahle leaves her son Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) on his father’s doorstep and drives away.
His father Harp is part of the legendary Fletcher Street Riders of North Philly, a group of Black cowhands who stable and ride their own horses, which they have been doing for decades.
Young Cole is angry and bewildered by this turn of events, and cannot fathom what to make of this father he does not even remember.
The complex relationship between Harp and his son Cole unfolds in the fascinating world of Black urban cowboys, who stable their horses near their homes, ride them in open fields and teach children about horses at neighborhood events. The tradition of Black cowboys goes back to the 19th century in the Western Hemisphere.
Time is not on their side because the Fletcher Street Riders only rent their land, and hungry speculators want the property for commercial development and gentrification. Various riding academies run by Black cowboys have faced this same threat not only in Philly but also in New York, New Orleans, Detroit and Compton CA.
According to Marie Claire magazine, writer-director Ricky Staub spent two years visiting the stables and getting to know riders from the Fletcher Street community before writing the script, and cast some real-life riders in the film — Ivannah Mercedes and Jamil Prattis.
The result of this effort by the actors, the director and producers Idris Elba and Lee Daniels is a warm and engaging portrait of a working-class community with deep roots, which focuses on nurturing troubled teens and giving them a future.
Lorraine Toussaint is Harp’s neighbor Nessie, who remembers Cole when he was a youngster. Method Man (of Wu-Tang Clan collective) plays Leroy, who grew up in the Fletcher Street community with dreams of joining the police force. In that capacity, he offers protection to them as long as he can.
According to Marie Claire magazine, writer-director Ricky Staub spent two years visiting the stables and getting to know riders from the Fletcher Street community before writing the script.
All of them know they’re living on borrowed time, since they do not own the land where their stables exist.
As part of the service Netflix offers, the film is prefaced with an advisory warning of some profanity and the use of the n-word, but viewers should not be discouraged by this parental advisory. The street patois of North Philly is such that full appreciation for the film and the community requires the use of subtitles.
Authentic and lively performances here from the cowboys and cowgirls, as well as the troubled teen who has to make a choice — hang out with street kids destined for run-ins with the law, or train to understand the world of horses within this remarkable community. Laughter, tears, marvelous music, dancing, horse racing and strict rules of behavior to provide a healthy way for youth to grow up.
Concrete Cowboy is highly recommended, with parental advisory for those under 16.