Friday Flicks: Concrete Cowboy

A contemporary western that strikes at the heart of what it means to survive.


Starring Idris Elba and Caleb Mclaughlin — Lucas from Stranger ThingsConcrete Cowboy is based on the novel, “Ghetto Cowboy” by Gregory Neri, and inspired by the real life Fletcher Street riders of Philadelphia.

The Synopsis:

“Sent to live with his estranged father for the summer, a rebellious teen finds kinship in a tight-knit Philadelphia community of Black cowboys.” IMDB

The Plot:

The movie opens with Cole being expelled from school. His mom, at the end of her rope and totally fed up, opts to send Cole to live with his estranged father. I had planned on writing about how absolutely cliché this plot line was, especially for a horse movie, but the scene of Mom breaking down in her car with Cole screaming, “Momma, please don’t leave me here,” was actually pretty hard to watch.

After finding his father, Harp, Cole realizes his new living situation is far from ideal. There’s no food in the kitchen, the whole place has a hoarder meets stable chic aesthetic, and — oh yeah — he’ll be sharing his bedroom with a horse named Chuck.

The next morning, Cole wakes up to find a bustling community of horse riders right outside the door, with his dad giving lessons. Cole immediately leaves and runs into an old friend, Smush, who, unfortunately, appears to be a criminal. The pair stay out way too late, and Cole rolls back into his dad’s house the next morning. Harp confronts his son and Smush and then kicks Cole out of the house.

After wandering the streets and being turned away by several people, Cole sneaks into the stables to sleep. There he meets Boo, a rescue horse with a rough past that, of course, won’t let anyone near him. Boo and Cole have a quiet moment before Cole falls asleep in the stall, which is where the stable owner, Nessie, finds him the next morning.

Nessie tells Cole that Boo is now his responsibility. When Cole rejects the offer, she tells him point blank, “Well, then you’re not gonna sleep in my stables.”

Cole wanders back into Harp’s house and tells him he’s done with Smush and he wants to ride horses. But there are no shortcuts at this barn, so Nessie assigns him the job of cleaning stalls first. Which he does, one shovel load at a time, much to the amusement of everyone watching. Finally, Paris — played by real-life Fletcher Street cowboy, Jamil Prattis — teaches him how to properly clean and prep a stall and walk the plank, the muck pile plank.

Paris saves Boo’s stall for last. When Cole asks if he’s going to take Boo out, Paris responds with an exasperated absolutely not. Boo definitely has a reputation, and it’s implied that he won’t be able to stay in the program if he’s not tamed soon.

Later that night, Harp and Nessie teach Cole about the history of black equestrians in Philadelphia, most of which is true. There’s also a dispute with a police officer about complaints being made about the stables.

Even later that night, Cole and Smush go to a party and are drawn into a confrontation with what appears to be a very bad character.

The next day, while Cole grooms Boo, Paris shares the story of the shooting that killed his brother and made him a paraplegic. The first real “moment” between Cole and his father happens as Cole watches Harp carefully saddle a horse for Paris and watch him ride. Unfortunately, it’s not the moment Harp hoped for. Cole completely freaks out, realizing his father is more of a father to every Fletcher Street rider than he ever was to him.

The scene ends with Cole asking Harp, “Why do you hate me, Dad?”

Will the stables be shut down by the city? Will Cole train Boo? Will Harp reach Cole before he’s fully corrupted by Smush?

You’ll just have to watch and see!

The Critique:

A wayward teen sent to live with a long-lost relative who meets a wild horse is the most reused and recycled plot in horse movies, but Concrete Cowboy is really well done. The production value of the entire film is incredibly high, granted, there are some really dark themes and strong language throughout, so it’s not for everyone.

All of the acting is superb, and I really appreciated the fact that several of the characters, like Paris and Cole’s love interest, Esha, are played by real life Fletcher Street cowboys and cowgirls. The father-son story between Harp and Cole is entirely fictional and stakes have been raised for the sake of entertainment, but there are tidbits of truth sprinkled throughout.

Filming took place in North Philadelphia, with many of the scenes shot in the empty lot across the street from the stables. The conflict between the riders and the city is also definitely true. As recently as 2019, the city of Philadelphia requisitioned the open pasture Fletcher Street used for training and grazing to build affordable senior housing.

It’s one of many times that the stables has been raided and horses displaced, though those events in real life usually end with the city quietly returning the horses after they’re found to be healthy and well cared for, rather than the daring rescue depicted in the movie.

But Ellis Ferrell, the 82-year-old founder of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, continues to keep his dream of saving horses and keeping kids out of trouble alive.

“The only time [Black communities] see people riding horses, it’s always white people,” Ferrell tells TIME. “We are trying to let them know that we also ride horses and they see us riding horses, then they’ll know that they can ride horses too.”

There’s a wonderful moment at the very end of the film that shows a young boy in a car watching in awe as Cole and Esha gallop alongside the road. The joy depicted in the child’s face is exactly why filmmakers should tell this kind of story.

I give Concrete Cowboy 4 Golden Horseshoes.

Go riding.

Amanda Uechi Ronan is an author, equestrian and wannabe race car driver. Follow her on Instagram @uechironan.