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This Good Friday brings a varied selection of new film releases, though the closest thing any of them have to a religious celebration is reverence towards urban cowboy culture. That would be Concrete Cowboy, a Sundance film acquired by Netflix which uses its fictional story of a boy and his estranged father to explores the real Fletcher Street Stables in North Philadelphia.
Elsewhere, NOW debuts the Janelle Monae-led Antebellum, a would-be combination of Get Out and The Village, while the latest film from Kevin MacDonald, the painful Guantanamo Bay memoir The Mauritanian, lands on Amazon Prime.
Concrete Cowboy - Netflix
Inspired by the real North Philadelphia-based Fletcher Street stables, featuring some of the real Fletcher Street riders, Ricky Staub’s Concrete Cowboy is a frequently moving look at how capitalism and racism work hand in hand to wipe out Black traditions and their history — and how Black communities won’t let them. Narratively, the film is the story of Cole (Caleb McLaughin, of Stranger Things fame), a rebellious teen taken to stay with his estranged father after his school recommends him for expulsion.
Cole’s father Harp (Idris Elba) owner of the quite real Fletcher Street Stables immediately and aggressively tries to keep him away from the other side of Philly street culture, represented in his childhood friend Smush (Moonlight’s Jharrel Jerome) and the company he keeps. Harp mostly does this by putting Cole to work, but as the other people literally shovelling s*** say to him, the bad stuff comes before the fun stuff.
It’s a shame that the fun stuff comes so late in the film. This is advertised as an urban cowboy film but that mostly feels like a backdrop to its father/son story. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong in prioritising that emotionality — especially because the volatile interactions between Cole and Harp feel genuine, often piercing and heartbreaking — but it’s simply not as interesting as learning about and witnessing the history of the area and its cowboy traditions, as told by actors essentially playing themselves. The majority of the Fletcher Street family in the film (with the exception of the two leads and Method Man) are real cowboys from that stable, and their testimonials at the end sadly point at a more interesting movie, a documentary about urban cowboys seems like it’d be more befitting the film’s title.
Despite its unique (and partially squandered) premise, stylistically Concrete Cowboy feels quite generic. With its abundance of soft focus and roaming handheld and ethereal, meditative scoring, it feels straight out of the Sundance playbook, which ultimately sells its subject matter short. Sadly the real thing is far more interesting than the fictionalisation, but at least its charismatic lead performances, and a stirring third act, at least hold the attention.
Also new on Netflix: Just Say Yes, Madame Claude, Sky High
The Mauritanian - Prime Video
Another film out this week that skirts the line of docudrama is Kevin MacDonald’s The Mauritanian. To be clear, it’s very much a biopic, but its basis in the very recent past, from the perspective of Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), who was imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay for 14 years without ever being charged, sets it apart.
The biopic touches come in through its framing device, of Mohamedou’s lawyer Nancy Hollander Jodie Foster fights over the course of a decade to have him released, accused of harbouring and recruiting the Al-Qaeda members who staged the 9/11 attacks in a prominent case of Islamaphobic vengeance-seeking from the US government. MacDonald’s most striking touch is how it tries to set itself apart from other films concerned with American torture programs post-9/11, by placing such scenes from the subjective point of view of the victim rather than the detachment of an observer.
Watch a trailer for The Mauritanian
It’s not a goal perfectly achieved, and MacDonald’s filmmaking feels conventional in many other aspects, but the scenes from within Guantanamo are held together by an incredible and emotionally raw performance from Tahar Rahim as Mohamedou, apparently going incredibly method in preparation for the role.
It’s through that role that The Mauritanian justifies itself as a biopic feature rather than a documentary, through the powerful emotional subjectivity of Rahim’s performance, embedding the audience in his character’s point of view. MacDonald at least excels in this aspect of the film - in making us feel its urgency. As the final title cards note: Rahim was detained until 2016, through the Obama administration, showing (once again) that American racism is bipartisan.
Also new on Prime Video: The Dissident, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, Dunkirk
Antebellum - NOW with Cinema Membership
A full hour passes before anything happens that truly matters in Antebellum. Preceding that point is a long and torturous slog that feels suspect in its visual fascination with Black people simply as bodies upon which to inflict violence and trauma. Directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz completely mishandle and obscure the psychological complexities of their very subject matter: it’s telling that their white characters appear fully formed and far more prominent than their Black characters appear as a collection of regurgitated talking points rather than thinking and feeling people. Black characters are anonymous bodies of trauma while the white characters are first and foremost, their violence of the latter against the former perversely glamourised through the sheen of the film’s visuals.
During the film’s opening the terse, operatic strings in the score immediately telegraph that the film wishes to exist in the same space as something like Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which similarly builds its horror conceit upon the truth that America’s past of slavery is very much still present. Antebellum makes that literal with its transportation of modern day woman Janelle Monae into a Confederate plantation in an ill-advised spin on The Village.
It does its best to give the impression of a competent film but it’s simply just poorly made - languid and inert pacing, derivative and painfully cliched dialogue dialogue that all too easily becomes didactic, and just plain bad performances all around – only Monae and Malone make it out relatively unscathed. This is all worsened by it purposefully dancing around the reality of its premise in the dialogue. There’s nothing to latch on to, other than the pain these characters are experiencing. As the reality of the film’s premise is revealed, and does nothing to unravel the film’s exploitative ness even a little bit. That reveal lands as little more than half assed “gotcha!” moment meant to illicit gasps and make itself seem smarter than it actually is, and then makes the baffling decision to stall any potential momentum that brings by expanding that reveal into a long and terminally boring middle act that just feels insulting. There’s nothing new or clever in Antebellum, except maybe a renewed sense of exhaustion at this kind of exploitative nonsense.
Also new on NOW: Six Minutes To Midnight, Finding The Way Back, Scoob!