Idris Elba fought through a horse allergy to explore North Philadelphia's urban cowboy community in 'Concrete Cowboy'

Urban cowboys, father-son relationships and even a horse allergy are all explored by actor Idris Elba in Concrete Cowboy, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

The film, adapted from Greg Neri’s novel “Ghetto Cowboy,” tells the story of a real-life, but largely unknown, North Philadelphia Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, a group of Black urban cowboys and trainers. Caleb McLaughlin (Stranger Things) plays Elba’s 15-year-old son Cole, who reconnects with his father Harp and begins working at the stables when he’s sent to Philadelphia by his mother in Detroit, after getting in trouble at school.

Jamil “Mil” Prattis is among the real North Philadelphia cowboys director Ricky Staub put in the film. Staub highlights that Elba was able to lift Prattis up as a first-time actor, while Prattis lifted Elba up as a cowboy.

But at a press conference on Sunday, Suicide Squad star and The Wire alum Elba admitted he wasn’t the best on a horse, largely attributing his lack of skill to a horse allergy that impeded his vision so he couldn’t see what he was doing.

Concrete Cowboy (Courtesy of TIFF)
Concrete Cowboy (Courtesy of TIFF)

‘These were stories that became important to me because they were important to the people I love’

Staub first found out about these urban cowboys when he was at his Philadelphia office and saw a cowboy, with a horse and bright red buggy with huge rims, and ran down to the street to speak to him. That’s when Staub’s journey with this community initially began, leading to a preceding short film.

Famed producer Lee Daniels said he was “blown away” by the story, particularly that father-son love story.

“I pray that if enough people see it, they see the beauty of what these men are doing, what these stables mean to the community...and that we can keep it open, we can fight the city to keep it open,” Daniels said at a press conference on Sunday.

But Daniels admitted that there was some initial hesitation when he found out Staub was a white man, something the director of Concrete Cowboy describes as the “elephant in the room.”

“It really derived from relationships I had in the community,” Staub said on Sunday, highlighting that his production company hires adults returning home from incarceration and in the U.S. “unfortunately most people coming home from being incarcerated are Black.”

When the director was making the initial short film, he was living in the community where the stables are but recognized that he needed the real cowboys he met to tell this story with him.

“These were stories that became important to me because they were important to the people I love,” Staub said. “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.”

Although at time it may seen familiar and relatively formulaic in the film, the father-son dynamic in the film is something many of the people involved felt a connection to. Elba revealed that his late father was always in his life and they had a great relationship, 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.

Daniels said Concrete Cowboy touched him, wishing he and his father could have reconciled in the way Harp and Cole do in the film.

“It touched a place with me in a while that I wish my father and I could have reconciled in a way these characters do,” Daniels said.

But the film isn’t all about the men with Lorraine Toussaint playing a horse trainer. She described these real-life women as “glamorous” with a lot of bling and big nails. She’s also one of the first people Cole interacts with when he arrives in Philadelphia.

Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin in 'Concrete Cowboy' (Courtesy of TIFF)
Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin in 'Concrete Cowboy' (Courtesy of TIFF)

‘They are proven entities and badass’

Hollywood heavy-hitters like Elba, Daniels and Toussaint were quick to celebrate the younger actors in the film, McLaughlin and Jharrel Jerome, touting their professionalism.

“They are proven entities and badass,”Toussaint said. “This is what we’re bring up now, this is what the world has brought.”

“This is Caleb’s first movie...and I was so proud, and I think we all are, to be able to witness his performance,” Elba said.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, Elba said the ability to have this film shown at TIFF is an example of the innovation of humans, finding other ways to hold these events.

“One thing that we all know is that storytelling is how we become who we are and you can’t stop a good story,” he said. “There’s an interesting satisfaction that even though there’s a pandemic, a story like this can still get through.”

“During this time, people may look at this story differently...I think people might resonate with the sense of community in this movie, I think people might resonate with the connection of the characters.”