Idris Elba Is a ‘Concrete Cowboy’ in Netflix’s Stirring Modern Western

Westerns tend to be defined by vast, stretching landscapes in a romanticized 19th century America. Netflix’s “Concrete Cowboy” is an excellent western set in the present, and not in some Montana frontier but in the streets of Philadelphia. The heroes are not carbon copies of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood but Black Americans keeping alive a tradition seldom discussed in popular media. And it is a sweeping experience, somehow finding a way to combine the poetic imagery of the American West into the grit and struggle of our urban cities. In the old world this way of life was threatened by the rise of industrialism. The railroad was coming. Now, it’s gentrification.

Director Ricky Staub and writer Dan Walser craft the story around a teenager named Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), who gets kicked out of his Detroit school after developing too much of a troubled record. His frustrated mother decides it’s time Cole spends the summer with his father in Philadelphia. Cole has never had much of a relationship with his father, Harp (Idris Elba), and is surprised to discover he lives with a horse in his apartment. Harp is one of the leaders of the Fletcher Street Stables, a community of Black “urban cowboys” who have kept their way of life going for over 100 years in North Philadelphia. The tradition goes back to the days when carriages and wagons were the norm in a now vanished America. Even as the city continues to shift and gentrification begins to creep in, scooping up real estate for the moneyed classes, the cowboys keep riding their horses, cleaning their stables and sharing stories by nighttime campfires. At first Cole is resistant to the whole idea, preferring to venture out with Smush (Jharrel Jerome), who is practically an orphan and hopes drug dealing will provide enough to eventually move out. 

“Concrete Cowboy” is an impressive directorial debut for Staub, who has previously made short films after assisting on big budget movies. He takes a hybrid approach by placing familiar urban coming-of-age story elements into a rugged tale of characters in Stetsons the recently-passed Larry McMurtry would have been proud of. It is true some of the plot devices have been used countless times before, like Cole being a restless teen or the allure of drug dealing as a dangerous temptation for quick money. Yet it’s not as if the social inequalities and ills that lead to such situations have been resolved. Staub isn’t out to make an exploitative action movie. He’s dramatizing how an ignored American community is adjusting to rapidly changing times. Staub casts notables like Idris Elba and Lorraine Toussaint with actual Fletcher Street cowboys like Jamile “Paris” Prattis, who expertly instructs Cole on how to clean horseshit, and Esha, who is closer to Cole’s age but with infinitely more maturity. They shame actors playing cowboys in other movies and give the film the starkness of a documentary.

Many great Westerns use environment to evoke the characters’ personalities. As in a great recent indie, “The Mustang,” Cole’s tempestuous inner self finds a conduit through the rider’s life. He instantly connects with the one horse at the Stables who refuses to be broken. Through this experience Cole also begins to connect with roots he wasn’t even aware he had. There’s a great campfire scene where the Fletcher Street riders share the origins of words like “cowboy” or how the idea of “breaking” horses is also tied to America’s slave past. Another rider, Rome (Byron Bowers), who loves to fire historical facts in rapid succession, boasts that fifty percent of actual cowboys are estimated to have been Black. There’s also melancholy all over these scenes, because gentrification is trying to push communities like Fletcher Street. Staub includes characters we would expect in a cowboy flick, like the lawman, in this case Leroy (Method Man), a cop who has known the riders forever. But Leroy is also there to remind the cowboys that tenants in the new fancy apartments are issuing complaints about their stables, either reporting the smell or claiming animal abuse. It’s akin to recent reports coming out of cities like Austin, where gentrification seeks to shut down old Chicano hangouts or lowrider communities. Cole’s drug running friend Shush also has respect for the Fletcher Street riders, but he would rather just take the risk of crime to buy a farm away from the city and its furies.

As cinema “Concrete Cowboy” becomes a work of magnificent images. First there’s the brilliant casting of Idris Elba, who looks worthy of a John Ford movie with his grandiose rugged look. He’s a tough guy here, but hiding the painful wisdom attained with growing up. He loves Cole but doesn’t want to smother or babyish him. Elba is tailored for the rich images Staub and cinematographer Minka Farthing-Kohl evoke. Their approach is similar to the recent “Charm City Kings,” where Baltimore dirt bike culture was given a mythic feel. For “Concrete Cowboy” Staub and Farthing-Kohl stage Western frames and poses within the concrete and parks of Philadelphia. Cole and Esha share a moment in an alley, but their stances look out of “Lonesome Dove.” Characters in Stetsons are bathed in sunlight in a public park as if they were in a Montana valley. There’s even a raid with horses where Harp and Cole ride off into the night, racing by the stunned backseat passenger of a police car, the music by Kevin Matley soaring with heroic trumpets. Later the Fletcher Street riders appear coming down a street on their horses behind shimmering heat waves as the neighborhood looks on.

While “Concrete Cowboy” will seem fresh and new for many viewers, it can be seen as continuing a seldom-discussed tradition in American cinema, the Black Western. The Criterion Channel recently began streaming a fantastic collection of films within the genre, like Jeff Kanew’s “Black Rodeo” and Charles Haid’s “Buffalo Soldiers.”  “Concrete Cowboys” is a worthy addition full of elegiac beauty and stirring images. At its core are themes that go beyond the romantic power of its culture.  There are communities that have been hidden parts of the American fabric for a long time and which are now being slowly pushed away. The Fletcher Street Stables are still around and going strong, hopefully this movie will bring across why not all traditions need to ride off into the sunset. 

Concrete Cowboy” begins streaming April 2 on Netflix.