Concrete Cowboy is a movie filled with poetic and expressive imagery but hobbled with a trite and hollowed out husk of a story. That it has a tremendous cast to help sustain us when the script fails to provide direction is both lucky for us and regrettable. In the end, I find myself thinking of moments and wishing they were in a better film.
Ricky Staub makes his feature debut with Concrete Cowboy, and there are flashes of promise. But the script, written by Staub and Dan Walser, in an adaptation of Greg Neri’s book “Ghetto Cowboy” feels like a two-in-one movie with both suffering from lack of attention. The film attempts to be an urban western with the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club at the center, while another story about fathers and sons diluted with a story about gangs and drugs. If it seems like a lot that doesn’t go together, you’d be right.
However, much of what works is the stirring western iconography repurposed to fit the films setting in Northern Philadelphia. Staub and Walser do a decent job of weaving in the Western genre’s familiar story beats and iconography. It’s hard not to lean forward enraptured as Kevin Matley’s score plays over Minka Farthing- Kohl’s photography as she captures images such as Harp (Idris Elba) sitting majestically atop a horse.
One scene towards the end shows us Harp and the rest of the riding club, riding their horses through the neighborhood past a bus. Staub and Farthing-Kohl positioned the shot from inside the bus, cutting off the riders’ heads but allowing us to see the black bodies on the horses as they ride. It echoes those Norman Rockwell paintings of the wild west, the bus standing in for a train or a stagecoach, the riders, representing a part of history too little discussed.
Concrete Cowboy is at its best when the characters sit around the campfire and talk. They talk about how Blacks and other PoC have often been erased from the old west, both in history and mythology. Staub attempts to ties in with the history of Philadelphia’s Urban Riding Clubs.
The dialogue is serviceable, but in the hands of such greats as Elba and Lorrain Toussaint as Nessie, the words have a raw power to them. Staub wisely mixes in non-actors, real members of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club; this adds a level of authenticity. Toussaint and Elba elevate their flat characters into something bordering on impressionistic models that evoke.
Sadly, Caleb McLaughlin’s Cole, while he may be the star, does not fare as well. He does what he can, and in scenes with Elba and others, he more than holds his own. It’s just as a character, Cole, as written, isn’t that interesting.
The script doesn’t seem to know why its characters should feel a certain way or even what they should do. After getting into a fight at school, Cole’s mother, Amahle (Liz Priestly), sends him to live with his father, Harp. She hopes a Summer with his father will straighten Cole out.
While the movie hints at building a relationship between the two, it never really puts in the legwork to address it. Elba and McLaughlin share many scenes, but neither Staub nor Walser ever has them talk or address why Harp never bothered trying to reconnect with him or his mother once he got out of jail. The two share many scenes, but few ever feel as if they are in the same room.
The other problem is the subplot involving Cole and his best friend Smush (Jharrel Jerome), a charismatic young man who dreams of flipping ranches. After Harp kicks him out of the house one night for hanging with Smush, the two begin a friendship that feels as if it might blossom into something more. Smush belongs to a gang, and soon the two are running drugs on their territory under the leader’s nose.
These two stories are at odds with Riding Club, which feels a little lean by itself despite the gorgeous imagery. One scene has Cole cleaning out the horse stall as Harp attempts to teach Cole the value of hard work. Staub has us stay with Cole as he goes back and forth, shoveling manure. As much as I appreciate meditative moments in films, there comes the point where we are just watching a teenager shovel horse crap.
Staub seems well-intentioned in raising awareness about the Fletcher Street stables and the history of urban stables in general. Concrete Cowboy sings whenever the film dedicates itself to showing Blackness through the prism of the old west. But all but falls apart when it tries to do anything else.
Smush and Cole eventually get found out. The Stables face legal troubles despite Sheriff Leroy (Clifford “Method Man” Smith”) being a member of their riding club. His hands are tied. There’s nothing he can do. But Staub and Walser are never able to bridge the two sensibilities together in a satisfactory way.
Concrete Cowboy is never dull, if only because Farthing-Kohl’s camera excels at capturing dreamlike imagery, as well as framing Elba and McLaughlin. But most of all, it is evident that she loves Philly, as she captures and presents it in all it’s beauty, warts and all. The back alleys and abandoned lots might as well be Monument Valley with the care and vivid love she takes in framing every shot.
The stables shutting down only has resonance because it deals with the age-old tradition of all westerns, that of the price and toil of the march of progress. Once again, the developers want the land but have no need for the people who are already there. The settlers move in, and everyone else is pushed out.
I wished I liked Concrete Cowboy more than I did. Though parts of it are undeniably haunting and enrapturing, it never feels like the film knows what it wants to do. As the credits roll, Staub interviews some of the actual members of the Riding Club, and we’re left wondering if maybe they should have made a documentary instead. Still, I got to see Lorriane Toussaint tip her cowboy hat atop her head and ride a galloping steed, so maybe that’s enough.
Image courtesy of Netflix
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