‘Concrete Cowboy’: On Fatherhood and Belonging

Any onscreen portrayal of a father-child relationship pales in comparison to the nuanced nature of fatherhood. Fathers in the media are often depicted in different ways, ranging from abusive to caring to devoted. However, this varied depiction is few and far in between. Black fatherhood in particular suffers from the stereotype of being absent in the lives of their families, often portrayed as uncaring to their children. Concrete Cowboy seeks to subvert this stereotype. 

After another fight at school, Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) is sent to live with his father, Harp (Idris Elba), in Philadelphia for the summer. He discovers that his father had become part of the cowboys at the Fletcher Street stables. Cole then meets his childhood friend, Smush (Jharrel Jerome), who now works as a small-time drug dealer with big dreams. Tension rises when Harp discourages their friendship. 

Harp is portrayed as a protective, loving father who exercises tough love on his son. Cole, and by extension the audience, do not really understand how a kind man like Harp has seemingly abandoned his child. Harp’s past explains the separation well, but it is up to the audience to decide if it is enough. The film shows that fathers are also human through giving Harp dimension; he is shown as having contradictions and regrets marked from a lifetime of hardships. 

Concrete Cowboy is a promising debut film directed and co-written by Ricky Staub. The long tracking shots are beautiful in showing the expanse of the scene and situates the characters nicely. The writing is not spectacular, but it is not terrible either. Sometimes the events of the film verge on cheesy; in these instances, I wonder if I accidentally watched a horse girl movie.

The real charm of the film are the performances, especially from the brilliant Jerome and McLaughlin. Jerome is able to capture the depth and motivation of his character. He really brought the small-town drug dealer from cliché to believable. McLaughlin portrays Cole as an angsty teenager but does not overdo it. The dynamic between both characters is also interesting since both are insinuated as outcasts throughout their life. Their companionship is forged from their similarities, specifically their socioeconomic status and their dreams. It was also interesting to see the real Fletcher Street cowboys in the film. Their performances were good especially since this is their first foray in acting. 

Concrete Cowboy is an understated coming-of-age film that allows us to look at the lives of Fletcher Street cowboys grounded in the story of a father and his son. The film shines best when it explores the dynamics between the characters, especially between Harp and Cole, and Cole and Smush. The portrayal of fatherhood provides nuance to the relationship of father and child. Children, in this instance Cole, do not necessarily understand or try to understand where their parents come from. Cole’s age makes it so that he does not see that his father is human, capable of mistakes and regrets. This drives him to find belonging apart from his family, in his fellow outcast, Smush. This dynamic is special to both since they understand how their families have failed them and their passion for horses. The film succeeds in portraying the human nature of finding where one belongs as they grow up and feel pushed away from their families.

Concrete Cowboy is streaming on Netflix

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