Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” may have been the biggest sensation to come out of 2020’s fall festival season, but it’s wasn’t the only film about a largely ignored community. In “Concrete Cowboy,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and comes to Netflix on April 2, the community is a stable in North Philadelphia where Black men and women have been keeping and riding horses for more than 100 years.
Here, too, professional actors are surrounded by non-pros from the actual community being depicted, and here, too, the filmmaker — in this case Ricky Staub — finds uncommon empathy in the depiction of the world in which its characters live.
The film is partly a father-and-son story and partly a coming-of-age saga, but it expands to be more than that, using the real-life Fletcher Street Stables to explore a subculture that has been largely ignored outside of Philadelphia for generations. It treats this subculture with the utmost care, casting some of the real Fletcher Street urban cowboys in key roles and drawing on their stories to make this world feel rich and lived-in.
The first time 15-year-old Cole (Caleb McLaughlin from “Stranger Things”) sees this world, he can scarcely believe it. Tossed out of his Detroit high school for fighting, he’s dropped off at his dad’s house in Philadelphia by his mom, who can’t handle him anymore. A neighbor points him down the street to his father, whom he hasn’t seen in years — but when he turns the corner and sees horses on a city street, he can barely process it. (And that’s even before he finds that he’ll be sharing his dad’s house with one of those horses.)
Idris Elba, who also served as one of the film’s producers, plays Cole’s father, Harp, with the taciturn intensity of a man who knows how to treat a horse but isn’t nearly as surehanded with a son. Cole chafes at his father’s rules and starts hanging out with his old friend Smush (Jharrel Jerome from “Moonlight” and “When They See Us”), a local drug dealer who turns out to have a lot more nuance to his character that we might initial suspect.
It’s hardly a surprise that Cole will come to terms with his father and with the community of horsemen whose very existence is being threatened by gentrification. But the pleasures of “Concrete Cowboy” lie not in the broad strokes of the plot but in the way Staub and his actors sketch this community of men and women who have created a special refuge where nobody would expect it to exist.
The world of the Fletcher Street Stables feels rich and textured, particularly when the old timers sit around a fire at night and swap stories. These scenes have echoes of similar scenes in “Nomadland” – and like the scenes in that movie, the stories are frequently true and the ones telling them are often as not the ones who actually lived them.
The cast is anchored by Elba, McLaughlin, Jerome, Lorraine Toussaint as the stables’ mother figure and Cliff Smith, a.k.a. Method Man, as a local cop with his own roots in the community. But some of the other key figures in the film were recruited from Fletcher Street, including Jamil “Mil” Prattis as a wise, wheelchair-bound local whose life was saved by the stables and Ivannah Mercedes as a young woman who helps lead Cole into the community.
They all help give the film the texture of real life, though cinematographer Minka Farthing-Kohl also plays with light and shadow to give the stables and the houses a moody drama. The film also gets surprisingly lyrical and gentle at times, none more so than when Harp explains to Cole that his name came from John Coltrane, whose exquisite ballad “I Wish I Knew” plays out in the background.
It’s a movie in which almost every character has deep wells of sorrow, and in which the threat that this way of life might end always hangs over them. “The stables?” Smush tells Cole at one point. “They expired, man.”
But the denizens of Fletcher Street refuse to let them expire; they’ve been beaten down and ignored too long to give up on the place where they feel as if they belong and they are recognized. “I was born with a boot on my neck,” says Harp. ” … The only life I’ve ever known is on the back of a horse.”
Sure, it gets a little corny at times, but Elba sells it, and so does the rest of the cast. “Concrete Cowboy” is an urban drama, but it’s also a glimpse of a world most of us never knew, and a richly evocative introduction to a strange new world that has been right under our noses all along.