Stranger Things’ Caleb McLaughlin also stars as a kid sent to live with his father, who is a mainstay of the African-American urban cowboy tradition
Idris Elba has always been a charismatic screen presence, so it’s no surprise that he cuts a very fine figure on horseback. Elba is the producer-star of this emotionally heartfelt, unusual, if somewhat sucrose urban western. Ricky Staub, the director of several well-liked short films, here makes his feature debut, and with screenwriter Dan Walser he has adapted the 2011 YA novel Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri which is centred around the urban-equestrian tradition in Philadelphia, where the Fletcher Street stables have long nurtured young riders.
The Hollywood image of cowboys is white people in stetsons riding around huge open countryside. This film shows us that’s not the whole story: there’s an alternative African-American tradition. Caleb McLaughlin (who plays Lucas in TV’s Stranger Things) is Cole, a very troubled kid in Detroit who has been kicked out of school for fighting. His now desperate mum sends him away to live with his estranged dad in North Philadelphia; this is Harp, played by Elba, who is mostly to be seen gathered round a campfire with his friends in the evening, for all the world as if they are riding the range in a different century to this one.
Harp runs the urban stables — with real live actual horses in the city streets — and he’s a difficult, truculent, suspicious man, astonished to realise he is being asked to step up and face his paternal responsibilities. And he has a lot on his plate: developers and gentrifers are poised to buy out his stables.