The horse riding community we see in “Concrete Cowboy” is set in Philadelphia, but some scenes will ring familiar with Chicagoans who have watched the antics of the South Sider known as Dread Head Cowboy, whose most famous stunt was taking his horse for a jaunt on the Dan Ryan Expressway, which created a viral sensation and resulted in criminal charges.
Not that Dread Head Cowboy is the only Black rider out there, not by a long shot. Black riding clubs have existed for decades here and in cities such as Baltimore, Houston and Oakland. Director Ricky Staub brings that world to life in “Concrete Cowboy,” which is a fictionalized and deeply sentimental story, but is based on the Fletcher Street Stables in North Philadelphia. The film features a number of real-life riders in supporting roles, adding authenticity — surreal as it sometimes seems — to the story.
When 15-year-old Cole (Caleb McLaughlin of “Stranger Things”) gets into yet another fight at school in Detroit, his exasperated mother (Liz Priestly) sends him to Philadelphia to live with his father Harp (Idris Elba), whom he hasn’t seen in years. Toting his belongings in two garbage bags, Cole feels as if he’s landed on another planet when he enters his father’s ramshackle row house and learns he’ll be sharing space with a horse — a real, live, temperamental horse. Welcome to Philly, kid!
Turns out Harp is the unofficial leader of the Fletcher Street Stables, a tightly knit, generation-spanning group of male and female Black riders who live to ride and ride to live, with many of them saying if not for the club they would have succumbed to the temptations of the streets and been in jail or dead by now. Nearly every night, the group sits in a circle, drinking beers and telling tales about the history of the Black cowboy in America, Hollywood’s white-washing of the Black cowboy experience, and the halcyon days of riding right there in Philadelphia. Of course, Cole thinks this whole horse thing is crazy, and of course, Harp puts him to work shoveling manure in the stables, and of course, Cole eventually strikes up a special bond with a wild young horse who will listen only to Cole.
The relationship between Harp and Cole is awkward and distant at first — after all, Harp has been an absentee father for most of Cole’s life — and their constant clashes drive Cole right into the life his mother had hoped he’d avoid. Cole takes up with his cousin, a former Fletcher Street rider named Smush (Jharrel Jerome from “When They See Us”), who is mixed up in some heavy business involving drugs and guns and a local gang leader.
For much of the film, Cole is torn between the two worlds. Gradually, he comes to understand and appreciate and embrace the riding life, and there’s even a potential romance in the making with a pretty young rider named Esha (real-life rider Ivannah Mercedes) with a shock of magenta hair under her Stetson. But he’s also attracted to the supposedly easy money to be made on the streets. Will Cole find his way with the help of his father and his friends, both human and animal, or will he be lost to a life of crime? What do you think, fellow rider?
“Concrete Cowboy” is gorgeously photographed, with many of the riding scenes taking place in the magic sunset hour or under the lights of the city and in the rain. Elba and McLaughlin make for a plausible father and son, as each of their characters soften over time. (There’s a beautifully played scene where Harp plays a John Coltrane record for Cole and explains that’s where Cole’s name comes from.) Method Man turns in strong supporting work as a rider turned cop who remains sympathetic to the club, and real-life Fletcher Street cowboy Jamil “Mil” Prattis is remarkably good as a rider in a wheelchair who becomes a mentor of sorts to Cole. This is a warmhearted and borderline corny story we’ve seen hundreds of times before, but the backdrop for this tale is certainly unusual, and pretty special. Keep on riding, cowboys.