R E V I E W – M O V I E
Nafees Abrar Islam
The concept of having Black cowboys is quite common in media and pop culture. They have been a rich part of American history, and are seldom ventured into in cinema or reality. Ricky Staub’s debut feature, Concrete Cowboy, showcases this little-known culture through a more recent iteration of Black inner-city horsemen in Philadelphia, where cowboy practices and attitudes have been handed down for 100 years. Staub frames it through the prism of a father-and-son-connection story.
As the film begins, we see Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), a 15-year-old, facing expulsion from his Detroit school for bad behaviour and disciplinary issues. Later, he is sent packing by his mother Amahle (Liz Priestley) to live with his estranged father Harp (Idris Elba. WE GOT HEIMDALL RIDING A HORSE), who is also a cowboy.
Now, as we travel deep into the movie, we are introduced to Smush, whom Harp thinks of as a bad influence. And a bad influence he is! Cole gets pulled into the local drug-dealing network by cousin Smush, something that brings him into conflict with his father.
To keep his night ventures with Smush a secret, Cole starts working at the Fletcher Street Stables where Harp is a leader. There he is introduced to his own horse Boo, and they have an epic bonding scene together.
These ideas — of a broken kid finding new purpose through an animal, of a character caught in between a life of purity and crime, of a father trying to make things right by trying to stop his son from making the same mistakes he made — are well worn, but Concrete Cowboy makes them work by giving the characters the required space to live and breathe.
One of the most likeable and smart plays done by Ricky Staub is like in the movie Nomadland: He featured two real life cowboys — Paris (Jamil Prattis), who serves as Cole’s tough supervisor, and Esha (Ivannah Mercedes), an impressive rider/trainer who has a flirty rapport with Cole. This is an excellent way to portray the hardship the Black cowboys of recent days face on a daily basis for the ever evolving human civilisation, and it depicts the need for horses, carriages, and other transportation mediums that were used back in the day for daily living.
At the end, the movie helps them express their experience of being cowboys and their idea of what it’s like to be slowly forgotten by society.
This brings us to the next topic — Hollywood whitewashing. It’s not the first time that this has happened, and one of the key motives of Concrete Cowboy is just that. At one point in the movie, a group of contemporary Black men and women, pointedly sitting around a campfire, a trash can with waste burning, discuss the ways African-Americans have been mostly whitewashed in the Hollywood Western.
What does Concrete Cowboy really want us to learn from it? It depicts the hardships and the struggles of being a cowboy in an era where you see more cars than horses. Instead of carriages, we now have trucks. Instead of enjoying a walk or riding on a horse, people now have bikes, cars, and Uber.
So, the culture and importance of riding a horse and using it for the cause of the people is slowly becoming extinct. In the name of animal healthcare and development, horses are being separated from their beloved riders. Stables are destroyed to build coffee shops and stores. Where once used to be huge green grass lands are now roads. The places for horses and horse riding and the knowledge of being a cowboy are also slowly becoming lost to the people.
As a whole, Concrete Cowboy tries to show us the struggles of being a cowboy in recent times, and portrays a culture that is talked about very little.
Another aspect that Concrete Cowboy teaches us is family — what it means and how dear it is to the cowboys. Director Ricky Staub really did a good job to portray the message of family through the bonds of a father doing right by his son, and shows us what love is in the eyes of a rider.
To conclude, Concrete Cowboy is not your usual Wild West gunslinging, law breaking, riding into the sunset while a magnificent harmonica tune plays in the background sort of a movie. But it is still worth a watch. It is a film full of strong performances, an evocative sense of place, and poetic, vibrant filmmaking. I would have loved it if there were more testimonies from some real life riders who acted on screen — the same as Jamil Prattis, who plays the role of wheelchair-bound Paris. It’s footage like that which almost makes you wish Staub had spent less time on the fictional narrative and more with the people who are living with the horses every day.
So, if you focus less on the plot and more on the film’s visually stunning documentation of the culture of Black cowboys in Philadelphia, Concrete Cowboy is among the best.