Some films mean well. But good intentions don’t always make good cinema. Concrete Cowboy, that much-talked-about film about Netflix film about Black cowboys and their obliteration from America’s history, is so full of righteous indignation it loses objectivity and ends up clogged with disconnected emotions on socio-political justice.
In the end, I felt the one most unjustly treated is the audience. We feel short-changed because Concrete Cowboy is neither a social comment nor a human drama. Just a tentative aspirational mixture of both which in total is neither. I don’t doubt the director Ricky Staub and his co-writer's intentions. This film most definitely has its heart in the right place. Once having made peace with its conscience, the film moves on to employ the most common clichés from movies about Black racial prejudices and obstacles. The end result feels strangely sterile and disempowered.
Then there is the baggage of history. Every one of these social dramas has to have a young protagonist who is a drug dealer and who comes to sticky death. Here it is Smush (Jharel Jerome) who we gather, is not a good influence on our protagonist Cole (Caleb McLaughlin). This is as good a time as any to let you know that if you are a fan of Idris Elba this is not the film to expect much from. Though a co-producer, Idris is scarcely part of the narrative. The focus is on his estranged son, played with emotional heft by Caleb McLaughlin whose troubled mother dumps him at his father’s doorstep with his clothes stuffed in polythene bags.
Father Idris Elba doesn’t seem too attached to his son. Nor does he make any effort to reach out to the traumatized boy. This, I think, is a fatal scriptural flaw, rendering the father-son relationship so half-sketched that the narrative seems completely derailed by its haste to get on with the story.
But what is it?! What is this film trying to say? I understand these black cowboys in Philadelphia feel they have been misjudged and misrepresented. There is a bonfire conversation about the John Wayne type of Wild West depiction in Hollywood cinema. Have we ever seen any film about a black cowboy? Well, this is not the one about their lives, except when we see a horse parked in Idris Elba’s living room, or when the cowboys are out in the parking lot trying to harness horses.
Where is the father-son story that we were promised at the start? Maybe Idris was too hassled as a producer to give time to his character Harp which remains skimpy to the end. During one elaborately staged sequence, he urges his son Cole to get an agitated horse under control. Nothing that came before this sequence hinted that Cole had developed that level of confident kinship with horses, or that Harp had earned the right of ownership over his son to make such a dangerous demand.
Concrete Cowboy doesn’t lack in good intentions. But it sorely misses out on solid emotions. W.
Directed by Ricky Staub, Concrete Cowboy gets 2 stars!
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