3 out of 5 stars
Here is a spin on a modern-day Western that most may not have considered. African-American cowboys living in downtown Philadelphia are fighting for their right to keep their horses as they try to rehabilitate a juvenile delinquent. The story is taken from the novel Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri, which uses the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club as his inspiration for this modern-day fictionalised account. Throughout this family drama, the novel and the film show how this city-based horse-riding culture of Philly manages to bring the community together and inspire hope amongst its residents.
Even though the heart of this tale occurs in the city of brotherly love, things begin in Detroit with a struggling 15-year-old named Cole (Caleb McLaughlin). He has been a handful for his single mother throughout the years and when he is expelled from his latest school, she decides to take him to live with his father. Harp (Idris Elba) lives his eccentric lifestyle as a leader amongst the horse-riding community of Fletcher Street. He knows how to care for horses and learns how to adapt to raising a teenage boy. Cole must learn how to live within the tight-knit community of urban cowboys, horses, and his father. The Fletcher Street Club had been a part of his family’s past that he and his mother had left behind years before.
One shadow of his past that comes back to haunt the young teen is a street-wise friend named Smush (Jharrel Jerome). As Cole tries to discover himself in this new setting, this drug-dealing entrepreneur's free-wheeling lifestyle seems appealing. Even though he does get food and gifts from his friend, nothing good will come from following him around. This leads to tensions with his father, who does not want his son to get involved with Smush, even though the young criminal has ties to the Fletcher Street community. These challenges force Cole to figure out how to navigate this new life and determine if he will remain with his dad or follow his new mentor. Even though the path to chase after his street-wise friend seems appealing, things change as he becomes connected to a wild horse named Bo. Harp and the other cowboys watch on as the horse adopts the young delinquent and seems to provide him with a purpose.
What is evident as you watch cowboys riding horses down the streets of Philadelphia amongst the graffitied walls and burnt-out cars is that the whole thing can be quite disorienting. This bizarre mash-up of genres complements Cole's narrative by throwing us into the emotional whirlwind he is caught up in as he is left at his father’s doorstep. As they bring together Boyz N The Hood and a Sergio Leone Western, it will take audiences time to process. Fletcher Street is an unfamiliar world that is difficult to get your head around at first. Then to add a shaky-cam effect in the mix makes things even more disconcerting, even though it does become strangely endearing as the story continues. This disjointed narrative does manage to come around in the end and provide a unique coming-of-age journey partnered with a message of familial and community redemption.
The abrupt introduction to Cole’s world and the sudden immersion into this strange atmosphere on Fletcher Street is raw and uncomfortable. Ricky Staub’s screenplay and direction do not hold back on this atmosphere's harsh reality, which includes the language and realities of city life. To be clear, this film is not a Disney-fied story that makes all the moral choices evident. Cole must move from one hard-hitting lifestyle to another to discover the best options for his life choices. This means that this story delivers authentic storytelling that helps to redefine life expectations and uncovers the beauty within the mess of existence in the inner city.
REEL DIALOGUE: What does it mean to be a father to your children?
'Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.' Psalm 127:3-5
You cannot say that Harp (Idris Elba) is the best example of a father. He failed to be there for his son as he grew up, his interpretation of caring for him was minimal at best and the urban cowboy seemed to have more love for his neighbours than for his flesh and blood. Yet, his moral code and being there for his boy did have an endearing and honourable subtlety.
As he shares with Cole how he chose his name, you could see that he did have a love and devotion for his son. This taps into an aspect of fatherhood that tends to get overlooked because it is a responsibility, but it is a privilege. Children are indeed a blessing. It can be hard to remember this during the teenage years of misguided conversations and hormonally charged outbursts. Still, these incidental things should not diminish the gift that they are in our lives.
Fathers need to look at this opportunity as an honour and do all that can be done to be the men our children need us to be. Some days are more complicated than others, but thankfully the Bible gives us the instruction manual to help mold our children. While prayer provides the comfort to watch over them in all situations.
"As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" - Joshua 24:15