The western is a classic American genre of filmmaking. Cowboys, riding into a town overrun with outlaws to restore order, were staples of cinema at the turn of the 20th century, but they were whitewashed. John Ford’s, “The Searchers,” one of the most iconic westerns and a film that has been numerously acknowledged by the American Film Institute as one of the greats.
Yet, the paint by numbers portrayal of the Comanche people, a nation of Native Americans whose territory used to make up present day Texas, as ruthless savages. The blatantly racist dialogue like “living with the Comanche ain’t living” makes it difficult to fully enjoy today. There were also some casting choices that were inherently racist. The protagonist, Ethan Edwards, was inspired by a black man named Britt Johnson. However, the filmmakers decided to cast star John Wayne and avoid staying true to representation.
The latest Netflix original, “Concrete Cowboy,” is the latest in African American-led westerns that contribute to a more inclusive genre.
The film is based off of “Ghetto Cowboy” by Greg Neri, which is in turn inspired by the Fletcher Street Stables. This real-life nonprofit organization was founded in 2004, and focuses on providing animals to local youth to care for and build relationships with.
Caleb McLaughlin stars as Cole, a teenager with a tumultuous relationship with his Detroit high school. The first thing heard in the film is a message from his principal telling his mother that they cannot have him in attendance anymore. She decides to drive Cole to Philadelphia, in order to live with his estranged father Harp, played by Idris Elba.
He is one of the many concrete cowboys in the film, Cole learns to become one as the story progresses.
Cole recognizes this as something that is out of the ordinary and resists this community at first. Upon moving to Philadelphia, he connects with his former friend Smush, played by Jahrrel Jerome. Smush is a drug dealer and tries to bring Cole in on his business.
Jerome is the stand-out with a cool air that was not present in his previous performances. His last film role was a supporting performance in the Oscar-winning “Moonlight.” Jerome proves himself yet again as a phenomenal actor, giving his character a tightrope to walk between likability and pier pressure. He never veers too far into one section, and thus performs as a real person, instead of a stereotyped kid whose life has been consumed by drug culture.
At the core of the film, McLaughlin’s star performance is great. While the nerdiness he tapped into for his role as Lucas Sinclair in “Stranger Things” is not visible, he is still just as likable. As he is beginning to clean out stables, his grit is never verbally acknowledged, but is visible through the way he holds himself. The way he grimaces when the contents of the shovel tip over onto his sneakers make him a character impossible not to root for.
All of these great performances, including future James Bond star Idris Elba, are grounded in a realistic and believable sense of location. The horses walking down the street of Philadelphia would be treated as quirky by a lesser filmmaker. Here, co-writer and director Ricky Staub puts enough faith into his actors to deliver quality performances.
“Concrete Cowboy” may lack the shootouts of any other westerns, but it is a sweet coming of age story that gives voice to those who were marginalized in the past by old Hollywood.