Elba con­nects with fam­ily ‘ love story’

USA TODAY International Edition - - LIFE - Brian Truitt

It might not be the cow­boy way but the Idris Elba way works to pre­miere a movie dur­ing a pan­demic.

“What you can’t see just be­low, there is a lit­tle red car­pet I just rolled out ear­lier,” Elba quipped Sun­day dur­ing a news con­fer­ence for his new fa­ther/ son drama “Con­crete Cow­boy,” which is seek­ing a dis­tri­bu­tion deal at the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val. This year’s vir­tual event “shows in­no­va­tion of hu­mans. We find other ways. One thing that we all know is that sto­ry­telling is how we be­come who we are, and you can’t stop a good story.”

Di­rec­tor Ricky Staub’s “Con­crete Cow­boy” ( based on Greg Neri’s “Ghetto Cow­boy” novel) stars Caleb McLaugh­lin (” Stranger Things”) as Cole, a trou­bled 15- year- old who’s kicked out of his Detroit school and driven by his mother to Philadel­phia to spend time with his es­tranged fa­ther Harp ( Elba), a la­conic cow­boy who keeps a horse in his house and leads a group of Black riders in the area. Harp shows Cole some tough love, mak­ing him clean sta­bles, and the boy con­nects with one of the horses, though his drug- deal­ing child­hood best friend Smush ( Jhar­rel Jerome) is also around as a not- so- great influence.

Staub, who makes his di­rec­to­rial de­but, was in­spired to make the movie about the real- life Black cow­boy sub­cul­ture on Philadel­phia’s Fletcher Street be­cause he saw one ride a horse by his of­fice in Philly in the early 2000s. “It was a very strik­ing im­age to be in this neigh­bor­hood,” the film­maker said.

Be­cause it was a white di­rec­tor mak­ing a Black cow­boy movie, pro­ducer Lee Daniels – who calls the film “a fa­therand- son love story” – said he hes­i­tated “for a quick minute” be­fore sign­ing on. “I was out and then I prayed and I thought, ‘ This is ridicu­lous. I’m in. This cat knows what he’s do­ing.’ “

The film fea­tures a bunch of real- life Fletcher Street cow­boys and they were ini­tially go­ing to be the en­tire cast, “but when Idris Elba says he wants to be in your movie, you pivot. So it got a lot bet­ter,” Staub said.

Elba, who’s also a “Con­crete Cow­boy” pro­ducer, drew from his re­la­tion­ship with his own fa­ther, who died in 2013. The two had “a great re­la­tion­ship, but we didn’t talk as much as I’d loved us to. When I was read­ing the script, I was in tears be­cause I wish I had those very spe­cial del­i­cate mo­ments with my dad. That re­ally is the glue of this film.”

He also sees a uni­ver­sal­ity to the fam­ily dy­namic: “We all have fa­thers, we all have moth­ers, but we all have dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives on how that story plays out.” In the case of Cole and Harp, “we see them come to­gether when they have no choice. We see the son be­come a man and we see the dad be­come a fa­ther.”

Learn­ing to ride a horse was an­other story. When it came to the ac­tors chan­nel­ing their in­ner cow­boy, “wasn’t none of them good,” said Jamil “Mil” Prat­tis, one of the Fletcher Street reg­u­lars costar­ring in the film. “It’s all right. They got there, though.”

In Elba’s de­fense, he’s al­ler­gic to horses and there was a lot of Be­nadryl in­volved. “I couldn’t see what I was do­ing,” he joked. “It goes be­yond learn­ing how to ride a horse be­cause very quickly you have to have a re­la­tion­ship with the horse.”

“Con­crete Cow­boy” was filmed 15 months ago, be­fore the Black Lives Mat­ter protests and “this pin­na­cle of aware­ness,” Elba said. “But even then it was in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant to us as a group of film­mak­ers that you tell this story of the fork in the road you can take as a young man in ( Amer­ica).

“I’m hop­ing as a re­sult that peo­ple look back and re­spect the roles that com­mu­ni­ties play in young peo­ple’s lives. Of­ten­times it takes a vil­lage and some­times we might stray out­side our vil­lage only to come back ( be­cause) that’s where we’re safe.”

It’s also sat­is­fy­ing to Elba that in the time of COVID- 19, “peo­ple may look at this story dif­fer­ently from the way they may have done if this hasn’t hap­pened. Peo­ple might res­onate with the sense of com­mu­nity ( or) the con­nec­tion of the char­ac­ters.”

Added Daniels: “Y’all can’t beat us down. ‘ Con­crete Cow­boy’ ain’t go­ing to get beat down by the corona.”


Harp ( Idris Elba), left, teaches his es­tranged son Cole ( Caleb McLaugh­lin) how to ride a horse in “Con­crete Cow­boy.”


Idris Elba stars in “Con­crete Cow­boy,” for which he had to learn how to ride a horse – even though he’s al­ler­gic.

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