Doing this film justice in a short write-up is unlikely. Pull up Netflix and just press play at any moment you feel inspired. This is a beautiful cinematic film with heart to spare. You’ll immediately tell a friend, I guarantee it.
We open in a raw and painful crossroads where a Mother is at the end of her rope with her son and makes the most difficult decision to rely on a man she left long ago. She opens herself and her son up to both the possibility of losing him altogether or trusting that something must, can, and will change. Faith and hope are not gifts, they are a practice. As a parent, I was emotionally spent throughout this process, watching prodigal son metaphors, deadly turf wars, and the unlikely persistence of inner city stables and multi-generational horseback riding in Philly.
Idris Elba(Thor, Luther)’s “Harp” is a Black cowboy of few words. He helms two of the most moving scenes, both with his on-screen son Caleb McLaughlin(Stranger Things, High Flying Bird)’s “Cole.” Writer / Director Ricky Staub trusted his actors and stayed in each moment long enough to dig through the pain to find each other, creating impossible connections that prove that narrative storytelling is vital despite critics having touted that this should have been a documentary. The origin of Cole’s name and washing off the blood are the distinctions that make this movie a coming-of-age instead of a Western.
Adapted from G. Neri’s young adult novel “Ghetto Cowboy,” this movie focuses on Cole’s opportunity to change his destiny, to choose what’s expected of him or choose an unlikely path. His Mother thrusts him into this impossible decision, only to discover that within the cowboy world, there are still more paths to explore. Philly native Ricky Staub, Writer / Director & Founder of Neighborhood Film Company, debuted this film at Toronto International Film Festival in 2020 before NETFLIX picked it up for an April release.
Writer / Director Ricky Staub: “I founded my company in 2011 with a mission to hire adults returning home from incarceration. I speak every year in court to a room of candidates newly paroled. In 2017 I met a man named Eric Miller, he was speaking to the judge and in only a week since being home mentioned that he had purchased a horse. Not every day do you hear that in court! We struck up a conversation, then a friendship, and eventually decided to put together a film that would highlight the rich history of Black Cowboy culture in Philadelphia in hopes that the story would draw attention to this long standing legacy and help preserve their heritage which was facing extinction due to gentrification.”
This film explores the youthful nightlife through the eyes of Jharrel Jerome(Moonlight, When They See Us)’s “Smush,” yet flips the script on who ‘we’ think he is. All the way to the end of his story, Smush is being rediscovered. This film also celebrates elders and absorbs their wisdom, a proxy Aunt and Uncle fill in where our Father cannot in Lorraine Toussaint(Orange Is the New Black, Rosewood)’s “Nessie” and Method Man(The Wire, The Last O.G.)’s “Leroy.” Where Harp stands in stillness and silence, Nessie and Leroy speak truth into an empty boy waiting to be filled. Cole develops a new lens of the world once his Mother gifts him wings, his Father gives him roots, his friend opens his eyes, his aunt gives him truth, his uncle gives him a path, BUT his horse opens his heart to allow all of this to happen.
The Philadelphia Citizen’s ROXANNE PATEL SHEPELAVY: “Staub still managed to cast several of the actual Fletcher Street cowboys and about 100 community members in his film, … One of them is OG Law, a Philly artist and anti-violence activist, who plays Jalen, the “bad guy” in Concrete Cowboy. OG—whose real name is Michael Ta’Bon—is best known for his Deathfasts, in which he spends several weeks in a mobile jail cell billed as Hard Knock University, dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit, sending a message to young people to choose peace, or as his movement is called, Fighting Hate With Love. …When The Citizen first met OG, in 2017, he was spreading his unique message of peace all over town and preparing for the third of his 70 Mile-7 Day runs to raise awareness of his mission. He has always been on the front lines, as he says; now, occasionally, he takes time out from his activism to act in Staub’s movies.”The philadelphia citizen – MAR. 29, 2021
When Writer / Director Ricky Staub created a collaborative relationship with Michael OG-LAW Ta’Bon, “OG-LAW” for short, also from Philadelphia, they became close friends.
Ricky Staub: “In many ways our meeting was divine and magical and continues to be to this day.”
I asked OG-LAW what the biggest hurdle of collaborating was for him:
OG-LAW: “Poverty was my biggest hurdle because trying to have free time to create and be apart of major projects before the money comes.”
Since this was their first collaboration, I asked OG-LAW what the first day on set was like and the BEST day on set was like.
OG-LAW: “My first day on set was actually enjoyable. It was a very organic family felt vibe from day one. Everything was very natural once the cameras were rolling as l felt l was spending time with family. I felt open and accepted by the cast and crew which made filming very simplistic…I would say the final day of filming [was the best day on set] because this was the day l was introduced to the remaining of the cast. It was a great moment to have the opportunity to hash conversation with Lee Daniel, Tucker Tooley and other major parties. These windows of opportunities play a very instrumental role in my development as the creator and activist that l am today.
It would be an understatement to say this film has been met with a measure of success. I actually came across CONCRETE COWBOY for the first time when I saw that it was listed as the #1 movie on Netflix. I hadn’t even heard of it up until that moment and I jumped online to read all about it. I wanted to know how they decided to make this movie and what it was like for the team. I am inspired by this team. They dig deep and they mean it.
OG-LAW: “I got tired of my outcomes in life and I realized that your outcomes are determined by your income. At that point in my life is when I began making changes in my investments. The pain that I endured over these many years spoke to my soul and caused me to reflect on the way I was living my life and how this was not going to be my destiny.”
Ricky Staub: “People tell you filmmaking is hard. And It’s true. But hard doesn’t even come close to an adequate adjective for what I went through. A week before we started pre-production on the film Eric was murdered. Eric and I had become close friends over the years as we put this film together. He felt close like a brother. And now he was gone. I had to face my most challenging professional ontaking without my closest collaborator while also shouldering the weight of intense trauma. Ultimately a lot of beauty rose from the tragedy as the greater community surrounded me and supported finishing Eric’s vision for the film. His greatest desire was to see this story reach the largest audience and preserve their heritage permanently – you can learn more how we’re doing that at www.ThePURA.org. This is a non-profit Eric launched and we’re currently in the middle of a capital campaign to purchase land and build a stable. We have a GoFundMe you can contribute to.”
I asked the duo about their expectations for the release as well as their reactions to the reviews.
Ricky Staub: “Much bigger than I thought. It’s a strange thing to see literally THE WORLD respond to a piece of your art. As it relates to me and OG I’m glad the world gets to finally see his talent that I’ve known for years.”
OG-LAW: Honestly, It was beautifully frustrating because a small portion of the critics apparently did not like that Concrete Cowboy is more than just a Wild Wild West movie flick. It is a hidden piece of black. The film itself was a breathe of fresh air. While on set l knew Ricky Staub was a master mind but to see it all come together on the big set was worth the wait!”
This inspiring film is a must-see. I recommend grabbing some snacks and getting comfy with a loved one. According to Google, 94% of users liked this movie. You will too.
OG-LAW: “My biggest area of growth was learning to re-love the horses. In my opinion it is imperative to learn to love when coming out of the prison industrial complex because the department of corrections “unknowingly” deletes the ability to love. Through this journey I learned to love myself and others unconditionally on a different platform through my life experiences.”
Ricky Staub: “I can only point to my faith to be most succinct. I’ve taken my biggest risks and greatest adventures in this life because I’ve truly aimed to experience God’s love now. And by God’s love I mean connecting my life to the least of those in our society where true love and life is experienced.”
But what’s next?
Ricky Staub: “Nothing official yet but I hope to be able to have OG be a part of as many of my films as possible. But we’re also partnered in a lot of other beautiful ways. Ultimately what really links us is our hearts for God. And I don’t mean that passively. I mean that together we cover a lot of ground bringing hope, and healing, and love into the world now for those who so desperately need it. Justice is how you love this broken world. Our thirst for justice links our hearts.”
OG-LAW: “l have began to work with my costar/love interest in the film, Ms Toni Patterson. Our creative collaborations extended beyond the screen and opened several doors of opportunities for new projects that are underway.”