By Jennifer Green,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Language, violence in beautifully acted coming-of-age drama.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
Parental guidance and positive adult role models can have a life-changing impact on teenagers. Healthy entertainment and extracurricular activities can keep teens out of trouble. Black cowhands have a long tradition and a unique understanding of what it means to "break" a horse. Home isn't a place, it's a family. "Hard things come before good things."
Positive Role Models
Cole's mom makes difficult decision to send him to live with his father for the summer despite his protests and tears, to try to keep him out of trouble. Harp practices tough love, supporting his son by requiring that he abide by strict rules. Harp has his own history of trouble, doesn't want to see his son make the same mistakes. Community of riders from the neighborhood helps shepherd Cole into their lifestyle. Nessie, who says she prays for every boy on the block, offers wise life advice. Harp, Nessie, and the riders show perseverance. Smush, who feels abandoned by his family and community, is dabbling dangerously with drug dealing in order to save money to escape the city. Leroy, a cop from the neighborhood, watches out for his friends, shows that sometimes unfair rules are meant to be broken. Characters suggest Hollywood has "whitewashed" the Black community and especially Black cowhands. Movie features mostly all-Black cast.
Violence & Scariness
Cole is sent away after getting expelled from school for fighting. On his first night in Philly, he hears shots in the distance. Smush is threatened by the local drug lord, beat up, shoved in a trunk, nearly shot, then chased with Cole by the police. Cole witnesses a friend getting shot at close range. Harp finds Cole covered in blood. Paris describes how he and his little brother got in a fight over a street corner that killed his brother and left him paralyzed from the waist down. Horses whinny and kick at people.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Smush asks Cole if he has a girl back home. Esha kisses Cole.
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"F--k," the "N" word, "s--t," "bulls--t," "motherf----r," "ass," "bitch," "goddamn," "cripple," "dumb," "piss," "pee."
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Products & Purchases
Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Air Jordans.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Harp smokes constantly. Adults drink beer around a campfire. Smush and Cole smoke weed, stay out all night, go to a party where people are drinking and smoking. Smush deals drugs.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Concrete Cowboy is an inspiring coming-of-age drama based on the novel Ghetto Cowboy; the cast is led by Idris Elba and Stranger Things' Caleb McLaughlin. Expect lots of swearing from both teens and adults, including repeated use of "f--k" and the "N" word, as well as versions of "s--t," "ass," "bitch," "damn," and "cripple." Adults smoke and drink alcohol, and teens smoke pot. The main character, Cole (McLaughlin), is at a crossroads, and the path he chooses will define his life, like his father before him and like many young Black men around him. One trajectory includes the likelihood of legal trouble, danger, and involvement in the local drug trade; there are scenes of intimidation, violence, and a deadly shooting. But there are also positive influences, specifically Caleb's group of Black, city-dwelling horse riders, both male and female. Caleb also meets a possible love interest at the stables, and they share one kiss. Characters discuss how Hollywood has "whitewashed" the history of Black cowhands, and the riders live under threat of their stables being closed due to encroaching gentrification.
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Concrete Cowboy is for families with teens
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What's the Story?
In CONCRETE COWBOY, teenager Cole (Stranger Things' Caleb McLaughlin) is sent by his mother (Liz Priestley) to live with his father, Harp (Idris Elba), in Philadelphia after escalating trouble at his Detroit school. Harp is a trash collector by day and horse rider by night, following a long tradition of Black cowhands and inner-city riders. Harp is also a tough man with strict, zero-tolerance rules that Cole has trouble following, especially once he runs into his childhood friend Smush (Jharrel Jerome). Smush is starting to deal drugs, and even though he has some healthier long-term goals, he's digging himself into serious trouble and trying to drag Cole with him. Once Cole bonds with a wild horse named Boo, he starts understanding the value of the riding community, but it will take more than that to convince him there's a positive future awaiting him.
Is It Any Good?
This is a poignant, beautifully filmed tale elevated by an excellent cast and a real-life history that has affirmative messages for teenagers and the Black community as a whole. Concrete Cowboy is not without its sadder moments, though, including a line Elba delivers about being "born with a boot on my neck." He and his son, like Paris and Smush and others, all share a mixed sense of oppression and fear that has led them to make destructive life choices. But who is a person supposed to grow up to be when he's told all his life to watch his back on the streets, Harp asks? The film visualizes this sense by filming frequently at night, using light intentionally to frame characters or highlight specific attributes. Music is also used to reflect the experiences of different generations of Black Americans, with harmonica, traditional song, jazz musicians, and rap music employed evocatively.
London-born Elba pulls off playing a Philadelphia cowboy, and while the riders are certainly portrayed as noble, wise, and righteous, the movie doesn't fall into the trap of depicting any of them as perfect. It's the women -- Nessie and Esha -- who provide the pearls of wisdom, like "Hard things come before good things," and "Horses aren't the only thing needing breaking around here." But Harp, a chain-smoker with hard edges and a checkered past, has trouble creating emotional intimacy with his son, and Elba's performance is as much about what he conveys without speaking as his delivered lines. McLaughlin is going to be the real surprise out of this film, though. The gawky kid from Stranger Things is transformed here into a young man trying to appear streetwise, and McLaughlin, who's in nearly every scene, captures Cole's combination of tough and tender. His character has one foot in two different worlds, the stables and the streets, woven together throughout the film, not always 100% smoothly. McLaughlin ably embodies the teen processing these contrasting experiences, trying to decide his own way, his own conception of manhood and a good life. End credits include interviews with some real-life Fletcher Street Riders, including some who play themselves in the film.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about the real-life Fletcher Street Riders, who provided the inspiration for Concrete Cowboy. Where can you go to find more information about them? Where could you look for more on the history of Black cowhands?
Cole is drawn in two different directions, and the film moves back and forth between the world of the stables and that of the streets. What's the draw of each side for Cole?
How does Harp show perseverance? What about Nessie, Paris, and the other riders? What does Cole learn from watching them display this character strength?
Characters say Hollywood has "whitewashed" the history of Black cowboys. What do they mean by that? Do you think it matters that this film is directed by a White person? Why, or why not?
- On DVD or streaming: April 2, 2021
- Cast: Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin, Lorraine Toussaint
- Director: Ricky Staub
- Inclusion Information: Black actors
- Studio: Netflix
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Book Characters, Friendship, Horses and Farm Animals
- Character Strengths: Perseverance
- Run time: 111 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: Language, drugs, violence.
- Last updated: February 17, 2023
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