In North Philadelphia, there is a unique, storied Black Urban Cowboy subculture that exists but at the same time fighting for survival due to gentrification.
North Philly natives know all too well about the Black urban cowboy culture that was a direct product of the iconic Fletcher Street Stables and has been an internal part of the community for more than 100 years and has since given birth to the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, a non-profit, that uses a horsemanship program to help Black youth stay out of the streets by providing alternative outdoor leisure activities with equestrian sports that will also teach life skills while instilling discipline and promoting academic excellence.
Netflix’s new film, Concrete Cowboy, aims to shine a spotlight on that culture through a powerful story highlighting the bond between a Black father and son that has to be built from the ground up. The Ricky Staub and Dan Walser written film, which is based on Gregory Neri’s novel Ghetto Cowboy, revolves around Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), a troubled 15-year-old kid who is going through culture shock after he is sent to live with his estranged father Harp (Idris Elba) in North Philly after he is kicked out of his high school in Detroit. The decision was Cole’s mother’s last attempt at salvaging her child’s life because she is at her wit’s end trying to provide for Cole but has to keep dealing with his mishaps.
Cassius Life had the opportunity to speak with both Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin about their roles in the film, Black fatherhood, Cole’s experience with a fresh pair of Jordans, and of course, learning about North Philly’s Black Urban Cowboy culture.
We asked Elba about how being a Black father himself affected carried over into his portrayal of Harper, specifically in one powerful scene featuring both himself and McLaughlin. “For my character Harp, it was one of the big moments that he was both avoiding and hoping to get to, and I hope the audience felt that way,” he begins. “Here he is, a big daddy of the community but couldn’t hug his son, couldn’t warm his son. So that big heart-to-heart moment really at the beginning of the film you don’t see it coming. Hopefully, they’re just too far apart, and that’s why I really feel that moment just pays off.”
Elba also spoke on wanting to see Black fathers being portrayed in a more positive light in films adding, “we’re not all cowards, we’re not all just people who disappear on our kids, we’re men.”
Speaking with McLaughlin, we asked the young rising star about taking on a more complex role like Cole. The Stranger Things star revealed to us that Elba’s advice, input from fellow co-stars, and his own dad, who shared with him that his father was absent in his life, helped him prepare to play Cole in the film.
“It took me from the time I got the role, till we got on set to really get into character,” McLaughlin says. “I think being in Philly and being amongst the people, amongst great actors and just talking with Idris because I know our relationship in the film plays a prominent role in the film. So, just sitting down with him [Idris Elba] and Ricky and even the other actors just helped me get into the role and listening to music. Talking to my father, and he dropped me some information on his relationship with his father. Me and my father have a great relationship. I love my relationship with my father. My dad has been there from the beginning. He was just telling me stuff about how his father was absent, and he kinda had that same moment that Harp and Cole had in the film he had with his father. When my dad was talking about his father, I saw him tearing up and how he felt emotionally. I took some of that and brought it into my performance.”
Elba also spoke on the learning about the Black Urban Cowboy culture that he knew about thanks to visits to Philadelphia but became more informed about during 3 years they spent making the film. “I really learned a lot. I got a sense of the community and the history. Basically, horses were there before cars came along, and when the cars came and the people that had the money to buy cars used cars. Everyone else, typically the Black communities, kept the horses, and it wasn’t just for riding around having horses. These were horses that were working. These were delivery [horses], these were horses that were helping. I really learned a lot making this film, and I hope audiences appreciate that.
The actor also pointed out that the stables face gentrification and are being removed and shared the GoFundMe account set up to help the stables be relocated.
Concrete Cowboy also stars Cliff “Method Man” Smith, Jharrel Jerome, and Lorraine Toussaint and premieres exclusively on Netflix on April 2. Stay tuned for our conversation with them, and you can peep our full interview with Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin above.
Photo: Aaron Ricketts / Netflix