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Black Cowboys

Still Concrete Cowboy. (Netflix.)

Black cowboys, contrary to my public school miseducation, are an integral part of US history. They also have a presence in the city of Philadelphia now. Consider the new Netflix film Concrete Cowboy.

Based on the young adult novel Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri, director-writer Ricky Staub’s film fictionalizes the tale of Cole, a wayward youth from Detroit played by Caleb McLaughlin. After a school fight that spurs expulsion, Cole’s frustrated mom takes him to stay with his dad, Harp, who lives in North Philadelphia. Idris Elba, the British actor who rocked it in Molly’s Game, portrays Harp with aplomb.

Like Detroit, Philadelphia is deindustrialized. Capital fled labor for reasons of profits and market share in both cities. That is how capitalism operates stateside and around the world.

Cole soon discovers that Harp, an urban cowboy, has a horse living inside his home. The animal adds to the adjustment facing Cole, who confronts a strained father-son relationship and the black cowboy culture, a legacy of the post-Civil War era that Walter Dean Myers writes about in My Name Is America: The Journal of Joshua Loper, A Black Cowboy (Scholastic, 1999).

That past and his current present overwhelm Cole. Meanwhile, he wrestles with resentment after his mother’s action. He struggles.

Jharrel Jerome, who I first saw in the film Moonlight, plays Smush, a childhood friend of Cole’s. The two reconnect. “I got you,” Smush tells Cole repeatedly as they burn one together.

Yet the boys’ reconnection displeases Harp. He dislikes Smush’s outlaw leanings. Harp gives Cole an ultimatum to stay away from his friend. The streets, as Harp warns Cole, can be and are lethal to black youth testing personal and social limits.

Concrete Cowboy features several characters who are actual cowboys and cowgirls in the North Philadelphia neighborhood where Harp and Cole live, beset by the virus of gentrification currently. The specter of developers casts a dark shadow over the neighborhood where the Fletcher Street Urban Riders Club, the mentoring group that the fictional Harp character is based on, operates.

Ivannah-Mercedes plays the cowgirl Esha, Cole’s love interest. She teaches him about horses and much else. Their relationship is understated but understandable.

Lorraine Toussaint portrays Nessie, Harp’s neighbor. She is a cowgirl and a stern taskmaster in her own right. Nessie treats Cole’s youthful mis-actions with tough love.

Cole serves as an apprentice cleaning muck out of the stables. On his maiden voyage into this task, he wears a new pair of Air Jordan shoes, not quite the proper footwear. Such physical work, though, is positive preparation for what is to come.

Cole, you see, develops a bond with an unruly horse. That relationship is a key moment in the film. Cole’s horse handling comes in handy when the animal breaks out. He is the only one who can bring this horse back. Harp coaches Cole.

Horse riding helped Harp make his way in the world, as it does for Cole. The human and horse bond facilitates the father-and-son relationship. The latter grows when Cole turns to Harp in anguish near the film’s end.

One of four cowboys were black in the American West, according to historian William Loren Katz. Bill Pickett, born in 1870, was perhaps one of the most famous of them.

In Concrete Cowboy, we see a corner of the US’s hidden race and class history. It comes into sharper view in this film. I recommend it.

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email sethsandronsky@gmail.com

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