Ricky Staub thought he was hallucinating.
When he looked outside his office window, he saw a horse and buggy making its way down the streets of North Philadelphia like an emissary from another century. But there were details that immediately identified the driver as hailing from this time and place: namely, a subwoofer and speakers blasting rap music and rims with souped-up spinners that wouldn’t have been out of place on a car.
“It was an extraordinary sight,” says Staub, a filmmaker whose production company is located in that section of the City of Brotherly Love. “I thought, ‘What the heck is going on? Am I dreaming?’”
As Staub quickly found out, his office was roughly a mile from the Fletcher Street stables, a nonprofit organization that’s been dedicated to inner-city horsemanship for 100 years. The writer and director became convinced that the group and its unlikely celebration of riding culture had the makings of a great movie. “Concrete Cowboy,” a fictionalized family drama set against the backdrop of the stables, will premiere at the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival, where it’s expected to be one of the hottest titles available for acquisition. It contains career-best work from Idris Elba as Harp, an ex-con who finds purpose working with horses, and marks “Stranger Things” star Caleb McLaughlin, who plays Harp’s troubled son Cole, as an actor of tremendous emotional depth and range.
Before Elba and McLaughlin get propelled into the thick of the awards race, however, it should be noted that this year’s TIFF promises to be unlike any other. Instead of glitzy red-carpet premieres, the annual celebration of moviemaking is being conducted virtually, a concession to the coronavirus pandemic.
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“What are we walking into?” asks producer Lee Daniels with a chuckle. “What is a virtual film festival? It’s very exciting, but we don’t really know what we’re up against. We’re walking into the Twilight Zone. Pray for us.”
“Concrete Cowboy” is Staub’s feature film directing debut and emerges after the writer and filmmaker embarked on an extensive fact-finding mission inspired by his early encounter with that horse and buggy. He spent hours at the row-house stables talking to the men and women who care for the horses and who have invested time and energy in teaching kids in the neighborhood about the value of tending to and training the animals. Staub went to barbecues, he cleaned out stalls, he learned to ride, all while recording hours of conversations with the collection of urban cowboys. That, in turn, led him to “Ghetto Cowboy,” a novel by Greg Neri that was set at Fletcher Street. Staub saw the project as an opportunity to transpose one of cinema’s most enduring genres, the Western, into an unlikely backdrop, mixing in images of horsemen on a horizon that would not have populated Sergio Leone or John Ford films — the modern cityscape. Most studios and production companies didn’t share Staub’s enthusiasm for the material.
“It was a battle,” Staub says. “It took five years. There were a lot of nos and a lot of setbacks. It’s not like there was some huge bidding war for a random horse story set in North Philly.”
Indeed, “Concrete Cowboy” might never have made it to the big screen were it not for Daniels, the director of “Precious” and creator of “Empire” who also happened to be born and raised in Philadelphia, just blocks from the stables. It was Daniels who put his commercial muscle behind the project, on the basis of a short film that Staub had directed called “The Cage.” The film, which centered on a Philly teenager who uses basketball to escape his troubled home life, impressed the mogul and his producing partner, Tucker Tooley.
“He had a very clear understanding of storytelling and how to hold a camera,” says Daniels of Staub. “He just felt fresh and real and authentic — all the things you look for in a director.”
Initially, Staub planned to apply a documentary-like approach to the production by using nonactors, many of whom were members of the riding club. He was inspired by what Chloé Zhao had accomplished on 2018’s “The Rider,” a contemporary Western that cast Lakota Sioux residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation instead of professional performers. His strategy changed, however, when Elba read the script, which carried the uplifting message about the Black community the actor had been looking for.
“It was a world that I knew nothing about,” says Elba. “I liked the idea that the cowboys have been around for so long nurturing youth and creating opportunities. These kids have cared for these horses as a deterrent to crime or drugs or other stuff that they might have fallen into.”
The movie proved to be a cathartic experience for Elba. He identified intensely with the role of Harp, seeing the part as a way to pay tribute to his late father, Winston Elba, who died of lung cancer in 2013. Elba was close to his dad, but that’s not the case with Harp and Cole, who have searing fights that stem from Cole’s intense feelings of abandonment. He’s been raised by a single mother in Detroit and has been sent to live with Harp after getting kicked out of a succession of schools. In Harp, he finds a disciplinarian who expects him to put in the hours at the stables and who warns him about the dangers of hanging out with Smoosh (Jharrel Jerome), a childhood friend whose lifestyle involves petty crime and drugs.
But even as he tries to prevent Cole from taking the wrong path, Harp remains emotionally detached, struggling to connect with his son and to make him feel supported and loved. Elba and McLaughlin not only rehearsed their scenes extensively prior to shooting, but they also discussed their own relationships with their fathers in order to prepare for their on-screen confrontations.
“My dad’s death is still very painful for me,” says Elba. “There was raw emotion that I was living through. Caleb is a great actor, and there were lots of times where it became really emotional for both of us. We weren’t just phoning it in. It felt real.”
It helped that the 20-day shoot unfolded in the North Philly streets that Fletcher Street riders call home, with 10 of the film’s 25 speaking roles going to members of the community. Though Cole and Harp’s fractured bond forms the beating heart of the film, many of the scenes that crackle with the most energy are those that take place at horse races or around campfires, where the Fletcher Street faithful rib one another.
“Ricky wanted to emphasize the humor and the camaraderie that these cowboys have,” says Tooley. “Capturing that back-and-forth banter is what made this film truthful and hopeful.”
The low-budget, no-frills set proved to be artistically invigorating for Elba, who has spent a lot of time recently in major Hollywood productions such as “Thor” and “The Suicide Squad,” and for Daniels, who has enjoyed the rewards of creating “Empire,” one of TV’s biggest hits of the past decade.
“It made me realize how spoiled I’d been,” says Daniels. “It took me back to my early days producing ‘Monster’s Ball.’ It just renewed my appreciation for working with smaller budgets in a more intimate way.”
In between scenes, Elba would unwind on the stoops of nearby townhouses, joking and chatting with his real-life counterparts.
“The camera just ate everything up,” says Elba. “It’s all in the frame. We were really in and amongst the community — these were real locations; there were no set builds. There was no ‘Cut!’ or ‘Action!’ really. It was just go, go, go. It was almost like living the story while a film crew shot it.”
The actors also had to do their own horseback riding, something that was a challenge given that McLaughlin hadn’t been in the saddle since he was on a pony at his sister’s fourth birthday party and Elba was allergic to the animals, which kept him popping Benadryl during filming.
“The [Fletcher Street riders] were very open with their critiques,” says McLaughlin. “But it helped me to keep from doing it wrong. They let me know that riding a horse was really all about having a certain kind of swagger.”
One member of the Fletcher Street crew reports that McLaughlin was the more accomplished rider.
“Idris wasn’t very good,” says Fletcher Street veteran Jamil “Mil” Prattis, who has been working at the stables since he was 12, and who also played a supporting role in the film. “He was kind of nervous, and whoever first taught him hadn’t done a good job with the basics. I taught him how to step into the saddle, but when he needed to canter on the horse, he couldn’t really do that well.”
He may have struggled to hold the reins, but Elba endeared himself to the North Philly residents. Even after filming wrapped he’s stayed in touch with the Fletcher Street group. “We call each other and text all the time,” says Prattis. “I reached out to him when he got COVID, and he called me on my birthday.”
“Concrete Cowboy” arrives with a sense of urgency. The Fletcher Street stables is a victim of gentrification. The empty fields that serve as corrals for their horses are in the process of being taken over by developers, who are planning to construct an apartment building. That’s left the workers at Fletcher Street looking for alternative places to care for their horses. The riding club has been moved in the past due to development, and the members of the stables have had a contentious relationship with city officials and animal cruelty investigators, who have accused them of mistreating the animals in their care and have, at various points, even stormed and shuttered the stables. The club denies the allegations, and the horses have subsequently been returned.
“It wasn’t true,” says Prattis. “They came around, took our horses and took pictures of them and found out they were fine. It was crazy, and it made no sense.”
Staub hopes that “Concrete Cowboy” will galvanize Philadelphia residents to support Fletcher Street’s mission.
“We want to provide a platform to help them get attention so they can continue their legacy,” he says. “Our focus is to help the city find new land. We can’t stop construction, but we hope we can help the riding community continue
The film is debuting at a time when Hollywood is under pressure to tell more stories centered on Black protagonists. As one of the characters in “Concrete Cowboy” notes, when he was growing up, the Western hero on screen was rarely played by a Black actor — instead it was always a white star like John Wayne or Gary Cooper riding to the rescue.
Although “Concrete Cowboy” was shot in the summer of 2019 before social justice protests sprang up across American cities, the movie, with its stories of Black lives that have been enriched by horse culture, feels politically potent. The film dramatizes the harassment by city officials and police officers that the citizens working at the stables routinely experience. Staub agrees that “Concrete Cowboy” lands with a wallop given the momentum experienced by Black Lives Matter, but he says the movement’s message has resonated with him for a long time. For years Staub’s production company, Neighborhood Film Co., which makes most of its money directing commercials for the likes of Google and Coca-Cola, has mentored and employed former prisoners. He’s used his work to help the formerly incarcerated get experience in the film business.
“I’m so heartened by the global conversation around this issue,” says Staub, who is white. “But Black lives have mattered to me for a long time. I’m just proud that I got a chance to make something that will add to that conversation.”
The filmmaking team is disappointed that “Concrete Cowboy” won’t get a splashy festival premiere in Toronto, even though they’re hopeful that the selection will help raise the indie production’s profile and land it wider distribution.
“Watching a film is a communal experience,” says Daniels. “The best part is always seeing people’s reaction to a piece in real time and watching them laugh or cry and feed off each other. So it’s sad not to have that.”
Initially, Staub had hoped to host a big premiere for the community in Philadelphia and to fly in Elba as a surprise guest. COVID-19 scuttled those plans, but Staub still managed to improvise his own informal screening for a few key members of the Fletcher Street stables, arranging to show the completed project in August at his office. While the film unspooled, he remained glued to his phone, feeling nauseous as he awaited their verdict. He shouldn’t have been so nervous.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” says Prattis. “I couldn’t believe how good it was.”
For Staub those are the only critics who matter.
“There’s going to be a ton of reviews and things written about this film, and that’s cool, but their reaction was what was most important to me,” he says. “I’m an outsider. I understand that, but I wanted to know not only that it’s a good movie, but that they thought that I represented them fairly.”
That’s a Philly sunset everyone can ride off into.