TIFF ’20 — ‘Concrete Cowboy’ Sheds Light on the Fletcher Street Cowboys Through a Black Coming of Age Tale

A still from 'Concrete Cowboy'.
TIFF

“People in this country think all cowboys are white. That’s some Hollywood John Wayne bullshit.”

Rome, Concrete Cowboy

If there is anything that resonated with me after watching this movie it was most definitely that line. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I’d even heard of Black cowboys but after watching Concrete Cowboy and doing my own research, I’m shocked that not more people know about it. The movie unfolds in North Philadelphia on Fletcher Street where the real community of riders live. The city’s land maps show stables dating back to the 1940s (so they have been there for over 70 years) but it is still something that’s rarely talked about. However, Ricky Staub’s directorial debut brings much-deserved attention to this tight-knit community. Staub’s inspiration for Concrete Cowboy, which he co-wrote with Dan Wesler, came after he saw “this dude roll by with a horse and buggy and speakers.” After speaking with the man, Staub found the 2009 novel titled Ghetto Cowboys by G. Neri and did some more research on Fletcher Street horses. According to the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club website, the community has been around for over 100 years and for many of these years, it was thriving as they had countless of stables in Philadelphia.

The story starts off with a distressed single mother, Amahle (Liz Priestly) that doesn’t know what to do with her troublesome son, Cole (Caleb McLaughlin). Her last resort is to send him off to live with his estranged father, Harp (Idris Elba). After a rocky first encounter with his dad, Cole runs away to try and find a ride back to Detroit only to run into a childhood friend, Smush (Jharrel Jerome). Cole then struggles between his two new worlds — Smush and his drug-dealing ways, and his cowboy father, Harp.

Smush takes him under his wing at first, grabbing late-night bites, taking him out to parties and even getting him a pricey new pair of sneakers. It isn’t until Cole finds out that Smush used to be apart of the riding club that he becomes interested in the group. After Harp finds out that his son is hanging with Smush, who he does not approve of, he kicks him out which only drives Cole closer to his friend. After a close call with a major gang, Cole has a moment of realisation that he does not want to be caught up in that mess and returns home to give his father a chance. While working the barn, he grows a connection with an untamed horse, Bruce — he’s said to be wild but with the young boy, he’s subdued.

This is the Black coming of age film we never knew we needed. The film has an elite quality cast ranging from the more accomplished Idris Elba and Lorrain Toussaint to rising stars such as McLaughlin and Jerome. In the end credits, it’s revealed that 4 of the supporting cast, who deliver exceptional performances, are real-life Fletcher Street riders which just adds to Staub’s intention of doing right by this story and this community. It’s more than just a horse story, it’s a story about a family who finds each other again, with Elba and McLaughlin as the perfect father-son duo. Their performances are at best when sharing a screen and they perfectly feed off each other’s energy.

Ultimately, Staub fetches a real sense of authenticity to the screen, and while the film ends tragically, (don’t worry no spoilers) it is hopeful. Its sad ending is important to show the development that Cole’s character went through, and reflects on the real-life Fletcher Street cowboys’ battles with drugs and unemployment within the community. However, the riding club have now built a mentorship program for the Black youth in the area so they don’t fall victim to the streets, hopefully Staub’s film will shed even more light on this historical community.

Concrete Cowboy premiered at the virtual edition of Toronto International Film Festival on September 14th

by Kadija Osman

Kadija Osman is currently studying journalism at Ryerson University. Her favourite director is Greta Gerwig and she is also her inspiration for writing her own screenplay. She is deeply in love with Sophie Turner and tries her best to bring her up in almost every conversation she’s in. She hates to admit it but she never appreciated the score in films until she watched Me Before You, now it’s what she looks forward to when she watches something new. Her favourite films are Skate Kitchen, Lady Bird and Kingsman: The Secret Service. You can find her on Instagram kadija.osman or Twitter kadijaoxo.

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