TIFF20 REVIEW: Concrete Cowboy [2020]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 111 minutes
    Release Date: 2020 (USA)
    Director(s): Ricky Staub
    Writer(s): Ricky Staub & Dan Walser / G. Neri (novel Ghetto Cowboy)

The past is not the present.

There’s a pretty timely notion hiding in the background of director Ricky Staub and co-writer Dan Walser‘s Concrete Cowboy. Republicans love to spin a reductive talking point out of the “defund the police” initiative, but that plea isn’t actually demanding we dissolve law enforcement. It merely seeks to divert their excess of funds in order to assist them since they’re the first to admit they’re treading water in the deep end without a means to exit. Every time the government slashes a social program’s budget, the problem that program sought to mitigate suddenly falls under the police’s bloated umbrella. They haven’t been properly trained to take that responsibility on, though. And they’re stretched too thin to try. So they do what they do best: use lethal force instead.

Rather than spend a city’s exorbitant police budget on military grade weaponry and tanks, that money could be used to finance after school programs. Rather than spend on the assumption that inner city boys and girls will grow-up into hardened criminals who need to be taken down, that money could finance constructive ways of getting them off the street. This isn’t a tough concept to understand or an impossible shifting of resources to research and see there’s actual evidence to prove its effectiveness. Ask any of the Black urban cowboys in North Philadelphia’s Fletcher Street Riding Club and they’ll explain how it saved their life. Just think how many more could be saved if the city worked to keep it going instead of shutting it down.

Staub and Walser’s story is therefore a familiar one wrapped up inside an unfamiliar cover. Because while you’ve watched other films tackle the subject of the inherent tug-of-war between the gradual rewards of positive influences and the quick rewards but deadly risk of the negative, you probably haven’t seen it through the lens of Black equestrians riding their horses five blocks outside one of the largest cities in America. That is, however, what young Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) experiences after being dropped outside his estranged father’s door by his tired and out-of-options mother. He goes from getting expelled for fighting yet again to walking into Harp’s (Idris Elba) living room and finding a horse outside the kitchen. You can’t blame him for thinking it all too silly to believe.

So he starts running with an old friend (Jharrel Jerome‘s Smush) from when they were kids (Cole has been in Detroit the past decade) in order to get away from that nonsense. He plays the part so Harp won’t throw him out (shoveling the stables and hanging with other cowhands like Lorraine Toussaint‘s Nessie, Byron Bowers‘ Rome, Ivannah-Mercedes‘ Esha, and Jamil Prattis’ Paris—the latter two actual Fletcher Street riders), but he’s cruising with Smush whenever possible to make money on the corners and chip away at their dream of getting out. Cole is facing the same two worlds his father fought years ago. Harp got clean because of the horses. Smush got dirty because the horses couldn’t help him leave. Harp found a purpose. Smush sought more.

Based on G. Neri‘s novel Ghetto Cowboy, Staub’s film seeks to do two things: document Cole’s hard awakening to the fact that the path he’s on is almost certainly leading him to death and the Fletcher Street gang persevering to retain their lifestyle on rented land being scooped up by wealthy developers every day. Both threads work in tandem thanks to their teenage lead having a foot in each, but I won’t lie and say the latter isn’t a lot more interesting considering how heavy-handed and obvious the former turns out. It’s only a matter of time before the city shuts Fletcher Street down (despite a kindred spirit on the force in Cliff “Method Man” Smith‘s Leroy) and/or someone gets shot biting off more than he/she can chew.

We know how Cole’s experiences will play out where it concerns his allegiance to Smush and Harp, so the drama there isn’t quite as intriguing to follow as with the cowboys. That’s not to say Smush isn’t a complex and worthwhile character pursuing a dream with realistic goals despite his in-road being through criminality. He’s simply predicable. The others are too with their tough love and hard work, but their paths are rendered more authentic as a part of the environment whereas Smush remains a part of the plot. From Nessie offering a hot meal and clean bed to anyone willing to show he/she’s ready to leave the game to Paris sharing the heart-breaking tale that finally pushed him out of it, these are lived-in souls.

The street therefore becomes an afterthought beyond its ability to supply Cole with conflict. What we’re really looking at is how Harp and the others will win their new ward over despite that allure. With an emotionally heavy monologue from Elba to his character’s distraught son and an uplifting “family first” moment to get the paraplegic Paris back on a horse’s back, there’s a lot to like on that end. The more they open up to Cole, the more willing he is to accept this life as a way forward and to put his entire body into protecting it when the authorities arrive. As Leroy says (and the “defund the police” creed hopes to alleviate), “Sometimes the cops just need time to remember they have murders to solve.”

It’s a sobering thought considering what happens because you know it would cost less to give Harp and company Fletcher Street than it would to keep the kids they can’t save without those stables behind bars. We only get a little of the history behind this subculture thanks to Bowers and Toussaint sitting around a campfire, but we don’t need more than that to understand its power for change. Esha’s not being flippant when she tells Cole that the horses aren’t the only ones who need to be broken here. It’s through these animals that boys like him can find the light to become men without so much hate and anger driving them to an early grave. McLaughlin (a long ways from “Stranger Things”) embodies that evolution perfectly.

courtesy of TIFF

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.