When you say cowboys, the first place you think of is likely not Philadelphia, but that's the real-life setting for the story being told in the movie Concrete Cowboy coming to Netflix on April 2, starring Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin.
Adapted from Greg Neri’s novel “Ghetto Cowboy,” the film tells the story of the North Philadelphia Fletcher Street Stables, a group of Black urban horse riders. This group has been in Philadelphia for more than 100 years, with Fletcher Street being the core of the culture.
Director and co-writer Ricky Staub first discovered these urban cowboys when he was at his Philadelphia office and saw a cowboy on a horse and bright red buggy, with huge 22-inch rims. He ran down the street to speak with the cowboy and that’s when Staub’s journey with this community began.
Concrete Cowboy tells the story of Cole (McLaughlin) who gets expelled from school in Detroit, leading to his mother to drive him to Philadelphia to stay with his father Harp (Elba), and the horse Harp keeps in his home.
Harp is one of the cowboys at the Fletcher Street Stables, at a time when there are threats that local authorities will shutdown the operation. Cole, initially very much against the move and this community of urban cowboys, begins to spend time at the stables and riding horses, as he re-establishes a relationship with his father. While being introduced to this community of urban cowboys, Cole reconnects with an old friend Smush (Jharrel Jerome), who's involved in drug dealing and jeopardizes Cole's future.
But the film isn’t all about the male cowboys. Lorraine Toussaint plays horse trainer Nessi, the first person Cole interacts with when he arrives in Philadelphia who guides him through his journey with this new community, and a new horse friend.
While Elba may be the person who sparks your interest in in the movie, McLaughlin's performance is really the stand out of the film. The character of Cole is on a relatively predictable path, not necessarily a story arc we haven't seen before, but McLaughlin provides a lot of depth and emotion helps push forward the narrative.
Funnily enough, Elba revealed he was battling a horse allergy while filming the movie, attributing that to the reason he's not the best on a horse.
At a press conference for the film during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September, Elba also indicated that he was particularly moved by the father-son relationship between Harp and Cole. The actor revealed that his late father was always in his life, unlike Harp for Cole, but they didn’t talk as much as the actor would have liked them to.
“When I was reading the script I was in tears because there were moments where I wish I had those very special, delicate moment with my dad,” Elba said.
Director and producer Lee Daniels was aware of the Fletcher Street Stables but at the September press conference he admitted that he did have some hesitation about joining the project when he found out Staub was a white man, something Staub described as the “elephant in the room.”
“It really derived from relationships I had in the community,” Staub said.
Staub's production company, Neighbourhood Film Co., hires adults returning home from incarceration in the U.S.
“These were stories that became important to me because they were important to the people I love," Staub explained. "I feel an incredible amount of gratitude that I get to call this cast, the cowboys on Fletcher Street part of my friends and family.”
An interesting and successful choice by the filmmaker was to cast real-life Fletcher Street cowboys in the film, including Jamil “Mil” Prattis, who really holds his own while acting alongside movie legends like Elba.
It's really the setting, the North Philadelphia Fletcher Street Stables, that makes this movie intriguing. While the plot may be a linear coming-of-age story, it's really the world that we're stepping into, the setting of this relatively unknown group of people, that keeps you fascinated while you understand how important these stables are in the community.