TIFF20: Concrete Cowboy

Fifteen year old Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) isn’t exactly happy to be suddenly living with his estranged father Harp (Idris Elba) in North Philadelphia. He’s even less pleased to be sleeping on the couch. Harp isn’t much of a traditional parent or even a provider of many necessities, but he does have one card in his back pocket, and it’s a pretty good one.

As a father-son drama, it leans pretty heavily on some overly familiar tropes. There is nothing about this relationship or its journey that will surprise you. It’s a tolerable watch because the acting is strong but it’s corny in all the expected places, with some sentimental stuff thrown in for good measure. But I’m still going to tell you to watch it; there’s that ace in the back pocket, and in this case, it’s called setting. The father-son stuff is just an excuse for writers Ricky Staub and Dan Walser to tell us about Philadelphia’s strange but true subculture: Black urban cowboys.

Inspired by the real-life Fletcher Street Stables, Harp is part of a century-long tradition of Black horsemanship. Poverty and violence may surround their neighbourhoods, but the stables are a safe haven for the community youth, where kids can learn to care for and ride horses, and no one has to leave the city to do it.

Cinema has the power to show you places and lifestyles and choices that are different from your own, but these Black-owned stables aren’t halfway around the world, they’re in a city much like my own, not too far from my own, a city I’ve actually visited, and yet I’ve never heard of or even dreamed of such a thing. In 2016, Antoine Fuqua showed me my first Black cowboy: Denzel Washington in The Magnificent Seven. It was the opening night film at TIFF that year and there was lots of talk about the casual color blind casting. Four years later, I’m back at TIFF and learning that Black cowboys really do exist, not just some starry-eyed invention of Fuqua’s, but a real, lived experience that proves the breadth of Black stories is as diverse as it is vast.

Concrete Cowboy is at its best when it’s saddled up and ready to ride, not because audiences love horses almost as much as they love puppies, though they do, but because this was always the real story here – the craft, the pride, the honour, the sense of community, the skills and wisdom passed down through generations. There is a deep vein of authenticity here, and a story that deserves to shine bright like a diamond.

7 thoughts on “TIFF20: Concrete Cowboy

  1. Invisibly Me

    I can’t say I’ve come across black urban cowboys in many (or any) films before so I can see why that’d be this film’s ace in the back pocket. It’s a shame it sounds pretty corny though. They could have done something new here to really make it stand out. xx

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  2. Liz A.

    The thing is, cowboy “culture” as we know it has been whitewashed. Many of the cowboys of old come from Mexican traditions. And there was definitely a whole Black culture of those getting away from slavery. So, the Black cowboys are probably more historically accurate than we might believe.

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  3. Kariyanine

    It’s awesome that films can inform people of things that they didn’t even know existed under their noses. I’ve lived in Philadelphia and its adjacent suburbs for my entire life and didn’t know anything about this, granted I have no interest in horses, so likely tuned out any stories of stables in North Philly or urban horse riding but still. I might need to check this out when I get a chance.

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