Philly. With its Yo! attitude and cheesesteak style. Independence Hall and its experience with revolution. And get this, Philly also boasts a strong equestrian history. The mounted police on patrol in Fairmount Park – or during a rare championship celebration. Carriage rides for lovers in Old City. Modern day cowboys and riders in Strawberry Mansion. And the icemen of old that used to service the city by way of horse-drawn wagons.
My father spent his post-war childhood assisting his foster father, who was an old school, Philly iceman. Before the time of the Frigidaire, the iceman would hand deliver a hunk of the cold stuff to your icebox. Hence the name. My father, still a little guy, would be the runner while his foster father, my Pop-Pop, would chip the blocks and tend to the horses.
By the time I came around my Pop-Pop had long since retired; a love of the chew and hard drink wore on him like a saddle that tanned in the sun too long. His years of hauling ice were melted memories but he never gave up his horses. Even when he moved east across the river.
Idris Elba can do the Philly cowboy jawn
And horses? Guess what? Ends up that Idris Elba can do the Philly cowboy jawn. He stars as Harp in Concrete Cowboy, a drama streaming on Netflix. Harp is a Black urban cowboy who must learn to be a father to his estranged son while trying to prevent his West Philly riding club from moseying into the sunset.
Idris proves his chops here. The accent. The swagger. John Luther stoicism meets Will Smith nonchalance. And he might get the top billing but Caleb McLaughlin is the star. Here, McLaughlin is a full-on young man with pride and anger and confusion and stubble and thick hair nearly presenting him as the Upside-Down version of Stranger Things’ Lucas.
McLaughlin plays Cole. Who is forced to trade his Pistons red for Sixers blue. Where he is sentenced to learn to be a family player and embrace the cowboy way instead of the more enticing thug life.
Concrete Cowboy, directed by Ricky Staub, rambles on some before it gets the chance to break into a gallop. Cole succumbs on the well-worn role of Daniel-san to Paris’ (real-life Philly cowboy Jamil Prattis) Mr. Miyagi with scooping manure and raking sawdust becoming the daily exercise. Idris contently watches from above like some Asgardian god.
Staub, who adapts the movie with Dan Walser, takes his time with the family drama. Perhaps too much. The focus on Cole’s inner conflict, the old fish-outta-water angle that is too waterlogged, drains away at the external. The Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club is almost presented as a cinematic fantasy so that the eventual bureaucratic threat is entirely too comical.
Minka Farthing-Kohl gorgeously shoots the movie as hyperkinetic streets belie the solitary sky and green fields. Riding horses – whether on the open range or down Ridge Ave – represents freedom. There are not too many of those moments. When they do arrive? The laughter of comradeship. The bonding of man (Cole) with beast (his horse, Boo). The lessons learned all under a sky of purple clouds with the dome of the Gibson Temple Baptist Church resting on the horizon.
Those moments work.
I had spent a great deal of my formulative years on that South Jersey farm. But it wasn’t until around George Lucas’ introduction of a galaxy far away that I realized this homestead, less than four miles southeast of historical Haddonfield, was not the norm. I mean horses prancing around. And a barn. A field. Little ole South Jersey waiting to surprise you with a bit of untamed wild that still resided in suburbia. Even during the era of disco. Like Cole, and my father before me, I also got roped into some of that manual wrangling.
One summer, while friends were mastering cannonball splashes at the Haddon Glen pool, I was walking the stalls at the Berlin Mart with Pop-Pop. Buying feed, supplies, junk – along with handfuls of “Still only 35¢!” comics as a reward for me. And not even the manure in Pop-Pop’s stables could reach the heights of what was slung around when he traded stories with the other cowboys. He knew everyone. There was a community. A kinship. Be it on the parade route for a township Fourth of July celebration or hauling ice in the 40s or riding on Philly’s cobblestones.
Those moments work.
Concrete Cowboy displays that kinship while presenting a strong moral tale. Cole learns to be a cowboy; Harp a father. The movie shows a somewhat hidden life and celebrates that uniqueness. The soundtrack is hip. The horses are beautiful. But this is also a ride many have taken. After a while, any of that blend of uniqueness simply becomes a worn path. Concrete Cowboy is still worth getting into that saddle.