Concrete Cowboy (3 stars)

Concrete Cowboy

A group of Black horse-riders are at the centre of a true-life inspired story, starring Idris Elba

A stereotype-busting Black community is the focus of a film that, like the book it is adapted from, offers a fictionalised version of a real urban riding club based in Fletcher Street, Philadelphia. Confounding and conforming to cliches in equal parts, Concrete Cowboy stars Idris Elba and is directed by debut helmer Ricky Staub, who adapts Greg Neri's novel Ghetto Cowboy with Dan Walser.

Stranger Things' Caleb McLaughlin plays 15-year-old protagonist Cole. When he's expelled from school at the outset, following another altercation, Cole's despairing mother (Liz Priestley) drives them from Detroit to North Philly, and leaves him in the care of his errant father, Harp (Elba). Trying to keep him on the straight and narrow, the idiosyncratic Harp and his neighbour Nessie (Lorraine Toussaint from Orange Is the New Black) introduce Cole to the world of inner-city horseback riding at the Fletcher Street Stables. The excellent Jharrel Jerome (Moonlight, When They See Us) plays Cole's cousin, the ambitious Smush, who's encroaching on the territory of a dangerous drug dealer and takes Cole under his wing, to his father's displeasure.

'Horses ain't the only thing that need breaking around here,' observes Ivannah-Mercedes's Esha in a film that, despite its unconventional setting, has a few things in common with 2020's Black Beauty reimagining, even if its relationship to reality is much stronger. The first-time actress is just one of several cast members who are real Fletcher Street riders, and who are neatly incorporated into the ensemble.

Concrete Cowboy lacks some depth and can be laboured with its life lessons, with every character seemingly poised to proffer some wisdom, or the kind of personal reflection that you can only get away with in the movies. 'The only home I've ever known was the back of a horse,' muses Harp, just when you thought the film couldn't lay it on any thicker. If the usually reliable Elba seems detached from the material, there's strong work from McLaughlin and Jerome, and the satisfyingly subversive imagery and championing of independent spirits can be very charming.

Available to watch on Netflix from Fri 2 Apr.

Concrete Cowboy

  • 3 stars
  • 2020
  • US
  • 1h 51min
  • R18
  • Directed by: Ricky Staub
  • Written by: Ricky Staub, Dan Walser
  • Cast: Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin, Jharrel Jerome, Byron Bowers, Lorraine Toussaint, Clifford "Method Man" Smith
  • UK release: 2 April 2021

When a young teenager has to move in with his estranged father in North Philadelphia, he discovers the world of urban cowboys.