Netflix lovers, there’s a new horse movie for you to check out – ‘Concrete Cowboy’, a moving, true-to-life impression of Philadelphia’s Black urban horse riding community.
We first became aware of the existence of ‘urban cowboys’ in America’s cities during the Black Lives Matter protests last year. Alongside Bri Noble and her horse Dapper Dan, we learned about groups like the Compton Cowboys who use horses to combat negative stereotypes, protect themselves from gang and police violence, and create community. But we had no idea that Black equestrian culture existed in so many cities, including Philadelphia, the setting for ‘Concrete Cowboy’.
The film follows Cole, a teenager who is sent to live with his estranged father after one too many ‘violent incidents’ at school. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t go back to school in Philly – but he does get a pretty well-rounded education at the local stables! That said, this is by no means a simple Disney-esque ‘kid from the wrong side of the tracks discovers the healing powers of love and is reborn’ story. It’s gritty and real, with complex, authentic characters and a surprising finale.
As horse people, we were slightly irked by the additional ‘horsey’ sound effects, but name a horse film that doesn’t over-use whinnies and whickers – we can’t! That is seriously our only gripe, though. The horses are gorgeous, the storyline is fantastic, the dialogue is razor sharp and the visuals are simultaneously surreal and down-to-earth. We came away feeling totally invested in the characters’ lives, and by extension, those of the real-life horses and concrete cowboys that inspired the film.
The stables in ‘Concrete Cowboy’ are fictional, but they are located on Fletcher Street, where around 30 horses currently live in several stables owned and operated by modern-day Black Cowboys. (Did you know that in the 19th century, one in four cowboys was Black?!) Another genuine issue raised in the film is the challenge that these communities face in trying to keep their horses on Fletcher Street. The city of Philadelphia has already demolished many stables on Fletcher Street and beyond, and more demolitions are planned. Add to this the fact that the field seen in ‘Concrete Cowboy’, which the Fletcher Street stables rely on for riding and grazing, has been acquired by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, and the threat becomes existential.
Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club is probably the best-known stable on the street, founded by Ellis Ferrell, who has been riding in Philadelphia since he was a boy the late 1940s. Ellis teaches kids to ride on horses that he has rescued over the years – a common theme in Black Cowboy culture. The problem is that Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, like its neighbours, is funded almost entirely by the local community; Ellis has kept the club alive using his own social security funds. Against the might of city councils, Black Cowboys have very little power.
The majority of of Philadelphia’s horses live in disused lots, abandoned warehouses or run-down old stables thanks to the demolition of most of the city’s much-loved stables. ‘Concrete Cowboy’ does seem to have made waves, though, with Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club’s fundraising campaign raising more than double its target so far, and the newer Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy’s fundraising campaign well on its way to raising the funds for a new, permanent stable and facility.
If ‘Concrete Cowboy’ inspires you as it did us, please consider donating to one of Philly’s urban riding groups, or any Black Cowboy (or cowgirl!) group that you admire.
The reference list below is a great place to start if you’d like to learn more. We’ll certainly be doing more research into this amazing horse culture for future blog posts!
Faith Carimi, CNN: ‘The little-known history of the Black ‘Concrete Cowboy”
Paulina Cachero, Time: ‘The True Story of the Black Cowboys of Philadelphia Depicted in Concrete Cowboy‘
Michael Tanenbaum, PhillyVoice: ‘As ‘Concrete Cowboy’ hits Netflix, GoFundMe campaigns seek support for Philly horseback riders’
Talia Smith, Harper’s Bazaar: ‘Real-Life Urban Cowboys Are Standing Up to Gentrification’
Layla A. Jones, Billy Penn: ‘Uncertain future for North Philly horse riding club, famous worldwide’
The film ‘Concrete Cowboy’, its characters, story and promotional materials are the property of production companies Tucker Tooley Entertainment, Green Door Pictures, Lee Daniels Entertainment, Neighborhood Film Co. and distributor Netflix, and are used here under fair use.
Poster image via IMBD.