You can read the blog, or you can click on one of the icons below to listen to the podcast version! Click HERE for more listening options!
**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**
Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri (2011)
Concrete Cowboy directed by Ricky Staub (2021)
This is the story of Cole, a 12 year old in Detroit who is being raised by his mom. He starts to get into too much trouble, and his mom feels he needs a man in his life. She takes him to Philadelphia to be with his father; a man who had cared more for his horses than for his wife and son. Cole struggles in this new setting; with a man he has never even met before. But, before long, Cole is taken with the cowboy life and he and the others fight to keep their horses and stables which the government is trying to take away.
Thoughts on the book
This is a YA book, and a coming of age story-two categories I don’t usually go for. Having said that, I really enjoyed this read. The fact that it is about black cowboys makes it worth reading, seeing as that’s a subject that isn’t often talked about. It was a great, heart warming story though, and one that is appropriate for kids and people all ages. One review said,
“Maybe part of the reason I like Greg Neri so much is that he… sets his stories in cities, talk about gangs and other contemporary issues, and produces stories that no one else is telling. That no one else is even attempting to tell. Because if there’s one thing Neri does well it’s tell a tale that needs to be told. Boys and their attachment horses haven’t garnered this much attention since the good old days of The Black Stallion. There’s an honesty to Neri’s writing that kids are going to respond to. They’ll discover a book that speaks to them. Inspiration comes from funny places sometimes. Wherever it comes from, though, it’s worth it in the end. Definitely recommended for everyone.” – Elizabeth Bird, School Library Journal
Background on black cowboys
“Hollywood Westerns long ago popularized the image of the sharp-shooting, fearless, white cowboys of American lore. Although these classic films largely exclude the riders of color who helped settle the West, historians estimate that one in every four cowboys was Black.
There are various origin stories of Philadelphia’s Black cowboys, but the community is believed to date back to the early 20th century when Black Southerners began migrating north for industrial jobs, bringing their livestock with them. Black riders in Philadelphia drove horse-drawn carriages, delivering milk, food and other goods around the city. Others worked as cowboys passing through, herding cattle and helping settle the Western frontier. Later, they worked as jockeys and horse trainers for professional horse races.
When automobiles and trains replaced horses as the primary mode of transportation, Black cowboys kept their animals in the city, even attending auctions to save unwanted horses from being killed—a tradition carried on by the riders today.
The stables run by Ellis Ferrell and Black riders before him became a safe haven for many young people. “[The kids] always had the stables to come to after school instead of being on the street and getting in trouble,” Ferrell says. “It taught them to have respect and responsibility: for the horses, their elders and themselves.” 1
To start, the movie is much more serious and heavy. Honestly though, even though the movie is more intense, that doesn’t therefore make it the better version. It seemed to lack the heart that the book had. Since the book was aimed toward a younger audience, I wish the movie would have kept with that theme and made at least a PG-13 movie.
Caleb McLaughlin is in the leading role of Cole and he gives an amazing performance. He has some really emotional scenes throughout the movie and gives such a heart wrenching performance. In the movie, they bump Cole’s age up from 12 to 15.
Idris Elba plays Harp, Cole’s cowboy dad. I love Elba and he is great here. Funny thing is, I think his role in the movie is smaller than the role he’d had in the book. Cole spends a lot of time away from Harp in the movie.
Jharrel Jerome is an excellent actor whom you will recognize if you have seen the movie Moonlight. Here, he plays Cole’s cousin, Smush. This character has a much bigger role in the movie than he’d had in the book. Since Jerome is such a great actor, I was glad to see he had a larger role and has some powerful scenes.
Method Man is the cowboy turned police officer, Leroy. It seems like I have watched a movie with Method Man before, but it’s been a while. I was impressed with his acting! Leroy is another one who has a bigger role in the movie than he had in the book. But come on, when you have Method Man, of course you are going to give him a big part! For those who don’t know, Method Man is a rapper who is part of the Wu-Tang Clan.
In the book, Cole had never met Smush before despite them being cousins. In the movie, however, they talk about not having seen each other since they were kids.
In both, Smush is up to no good; however, in the movie this becomes a bigger focus. He is involved in gangs and drug dealing. This leads to his death near the end of the movie.
In the movie, Cole got involved and initially had no interest in the horses and just hung with Smush. Then later, he is into the horses, but still does his thing with Smush. In the book he never got involved in gang activities.
This is one of those rare cases, where the movie moves slower than the book. In the book, it didn’t take long at all for him to enjoy the cowboy life and to look up to Harp. In both, he can calm the crazy horse named Boo, and in the book, he named Boo himself. Whereas, in the movie the horse was already named Boo to begin with.
The movie has a scene where Boo escapes his stall, and only Cole can get close enough to get him back. The book doesn’t have this scene, but there is a part where there is a bad rainstorm and Cole kind of saves the day by getting a tarp on the stable roof when others aren’t able to.
Speaking of the horses, in both, Harper has a horse living in a section of his house. In the book, it was his own horse, Lightning. In the movie, he has Smush’s horse whose name is Chuck.
Stables being seized
In both, the government is trying to take the land they are using for the horses and come by to take horses they claim are being malnourished, even though the horses are all healthy.
In the book this was a bigger thing and more was talked about how the government was making them look bad, trying to get the neighboring people on the governments side, wanting the stables gone. They manipulate the media, to make the stables look like a horrible place on the news. They later fight back by going on the news and sharing the truth. By the end of the book, they still have the land, but they are still fighting the government. Whereas in the movie, at the end the land is taken. In real life the stables were really taken, so that explains why they made this change at the end.
In the book, Cole and Smush and another friend go to where the police are holding the horses and escape with three. When Harp finds out about this, he is frustrated. In the movie, Harp is the one that goes with him to get the horses after Smush has died. This scene, plus Harp finding Cole after Smush dies, are two scenes that show their bond growing stronger.
In the movie, Leroy also helps them get away with taking the horses back, but this didn’t happen in the book.
The movie shows Cole’s mom drop him off even though Harp isn’t home, and then she drives off. In the book, Harp was there and they talked for a minute before she left.
The book also says that the mom left because Harp just wasn’t ready to take care of a wife and child and he cared more about his horses. The movie makes a huge change here, saying that Harp had been in gangs and drug dealing. He was wanted by the cops for something, and at the time she was still pregnant. She ended up turning Harp in, and he did time in prison, during which time she at some point went back to Detroit.
The end of the book we learn that they now have an arrangement where Cole is with his mom during the school year, and with Harp over summer.
When she comes back to get him back after he is there for those first few initial weeks, was a great scene in the book. His mom is telling him, “‘Cole, I know you know what it feels like to be helpless, even if you don’t say it. That’s what I was feeling.’ Helpless. I think of all the times I felt that way. Most of the time maybe. I thought I was the only one feeling like that. And there she was, feeling the same thing all along.”
This is one reason why this book is great for younger readers, it helps you learn empathy and that you aren’t the only one going through tough emotions.
As far as the other cowboys Cole gets to know, none are same from book to movie. I don’t mind this, because in the movie the other cowboys, and cowgirls, most of them are really North Philly cowboys. Including Cole’s love interest, Esha, who is played by real cowgirl Ivannah Mercedes.
It’s cool she is an actual cowgirl, but in general I don’t love when movies have to include a romance when there was none in the book.
Book or movie
Ultimately, what makes both of these so interesting is that they tell the story of black cowboys in the city. The book takes this, and turns it into a heartfelt, coming of age story that I think kids could really benefit from reading.
The movie felt like it should have been moving, and it almost was, but there was just always something holding it back. The acting was great, so I think it comes down to the script and the directing. My favorite part of the movie was the end, when they show snippets of the real cowboys talking about what the horses and stable mean to them. I get they were adapting the father and son story of the novel, but I actually think this would make an even better documentary. Maybe if it followed the book better I would feel different, but as is, it would have been better had they just made a documentary.
What’s funny, is I watched the trailer for this after having watched it, and I thought it was a great trailer! They have a song playing by the Black Pumas (who are amazing) and the trailer just takes all the best parts and makes it look really powerful. Not that the movie was powerful at all, there just seemed to be something lacking at times.
The book isn’t one I would read again anytime soon, but it’s one I’m glad I read. Once a child is old enough to read chapter books, this is one I would highly recommend! It covers tough topics like gangs, broken families, and racism, but it also teaches empathy, responsibility, having something in life you are passionate about and the power of family and having a community. I have to say the book wins on this one. Though I do recommend watching the trailer of the movie lol.