‘Concrete Cowboy’ Review: Acquiring Horse Sense on the Philly Streets

There’s a quote that’s been circulating for years and years, apocryphally attributed to Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchill and a few other white men: “There is nothing so good for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.” In “Concrete Cowboy,” the improving aspects of horseback riding — and, yes, stable maintenance — are demonstrated in the tale of a troubled Black teenager, Cole (Caleb McLaughlin).

One afternoon Cole’s mom picks him up from school after a fight gets him expelled. She’s so fed up with her son that she drives him all the way from their home in Detroit to Philadelphia, where his estranged, taciturn father, Harp (Idris Elba), lives. With a horse.

Harp is part of a group of urban riders. There’s not a lot of room in Philly for expansive stables, so it’s catch as catch can. Nevertheless, Harp and his buddies keep their operations sufficiently copacetic that they are not just tolerated but embraced by much of their community, although the local cop Leroy (Method Man) warns that the authorities might soon break up their party. Cole gets schooled in horse sense; his training features an in-your-face close-up of a wheelbarrow full of manure.

Directed by Ricky Staub and adapted from G. Neri’s young adult novel “Ghetto Cowboy,” this picture offers a standard shot-at-redemption story, complete with temptation in the form of Cole’s renewed connection with an old friend who’s involved in drug dealing. But the movie’s convincing accretion of detail and its affectionate fictionalization of an actual subculture are disarming. (Some of the supporting players are members of the Fletcher Street Riders; the characters they play talk of the actual history of the Black cowboy in a scene around a vacant-lot campfire.) The quirks of Elba’s character suit his confident manliness well, and McLaughlin handles Cole’s defiance and sometimes practically equine skittishness with considerable depth.

Concrete Cowboy
Rated R for themes, language, drug use. Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes. Watch on Netflix.

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