Concrete Cowboy

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
Idris Elba and Calen McLaughlin in Concrete Cowboy.
Idris Elba and Calen McLaughlin in Concrete Cowboy.
Photo: Netflix


Concrete Cowboy




3/5 Stars


Sent to live with his estranged father for the summer, a rebellious teen finds kinship in a tight-knit Philadelphia community of Black cowboys.


A struggling teen gets sent to live with some eccentric family member out on a farm and heals through their growing bond with some forlorn animal. Sound too familiar? It's a popular trope that's seen many reimaginings throughout cinematic history, weighed down by its repetition and unoriginality.

In comes Netflix's Concrete Cowboy - the same story but set in Pennsylvania's urban streets, with gang violence and systemic American racism. What's intriguing, however, with this story is that it's based on the real-life black cowboys of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, a community of African-Americans who use horseriding to keep at-risk youth out of trouble and provide upliftment programmes. Their history in the city covers more than a century, standing proud in opposition to the whitewashing of cowboy history and culture.

While the film focuses on the relationship between a troubled son and his estranged father, most of the cast is made up of real Pennsylvanian riders instead of professional actors, something you only realise at the end of the film and would never have known while watching it. It's a testament to the skills of newcomer director Ricky Staub to successfully direct non-professionals that highlights their radiant personalities, while he does need to hone his timing in the overly drawn-out scenes.

Too easily, the story fails to hold the audience's attention and drive home the emotional turmoil of Cole, played by Stranger Things' Caleb McLaughlin, and his cowboy father Harp expertly performed by Idris Elba. There was potential award-winning chemistry between the two great actors, but the monotony of the plot weighed down the passion in their relationship, seriously needing an injection of fun in their sombre exchanges.

Instead, I was far more interested in the history of these urban riders than the fictional plot tied to them (based on the book Ghetto Cowboy), wishing it was instead a documentary than this dramatic modern Western. Perhaps if they leaned more into a proper mix of fiction and documentary, incorporating more interviews with the real-life riders, it could have elevated the story somewhat. On the other hand, perhaps the writing needed to be tightened and less sombre so that the light that this community brings to people could have shined brighter.

Concrete Cowboy is nevertheless a fascinating dive into a community I have never heard of before, even if you might be tempted to turn it off halfway through due to boredom. It also asks interesting questions around the perceptions of lower-income communities and their animals that they care deeply for when faced with prejudiced local government and animal welfare organisations. In South Africa, there are certain prejudices when non-white people own animals, and the validity of their bonds with them is constantly in question.

If nothing else, Concrete Cowboy will leave you thinking about these peculiarities of modern-day society and perhaps gain a new perspective on what constitutes a 'real' cowboy.


We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24