The famous actor Idris Elba is also a musician — a self-described studio fanatic who scours the world for session talent — and it was on such a mission to Philadelphia a few years back that he first encountered the city’s Black cowboys.

He was here scouting for singers when, from the back of a limo, he happened to see a Black horseman riding in the heart of the city, wearing a cowboy hat.

Elba said what anyone might say encountering the incongruous Old West image — whoa! — and took the indelible memory with him back to London.

Fast forward to 2019, and his production company, which looks for authentic and inspirational stories, hands him a script for a story about a community of Black cowboys (the term is used with gender neutrality — anyone can “cowboy” up) at a riding stable in North Philadelphia.

» READ MORE: As Netflix’s ‘Concrete Cowboy’ premieres, two Philly riding groups could benefit

He dived into the screenplay, hoping it might help explain what he’d seen years earlier.

When he’d finished, he knew two things: He had his next movie, and whoever had written the fictional treatment “had fallen in love with this community in a way that is important to the heart of all this,” said Elba, speaking via Zoom from Australia, where he’s doing his next picture, and also some press for Concrete Cowboy, now finished and streaming on Netflix starting April 2.

Elba said he was bowled over by the screenplay, and phoned writer-director Ricky Staub to say he’d like to star, which was astounding to Staub, a Philly-based independent filmmaker (with an office in Brewerytown) who had struggled to attract interest in the script, and to that point in his career had made exactly one 15-minute short.

He had researched and cowritten (with Dan Walser) Concrete Cowboy mostly out of love, without an inkling it would attract any movie superstars. Staub had worked for A-list producer Sam Mercer (credited on seven M. Night Shyamalan films), but his own production company (Neighborhood Film) was more of a forum for good works than a pipeline for Hollywood deals.

At Neighborhood, he hires formerly incarcerated individuals, training them for careers. To that end, he’s collaborated with Sister Mary Scullion of Project HOME, and with federal judges who connect with employers like Staub to find meaningful employment for those released from prison.

It was in court that he heard a man offer, as proof of his commitment to reform, that “he’d already purchased a horse,” said Staub, “which I found fascinating.”

The intrigued filmmaker followed the man out of the courtroom and eventually to Fletcher Street in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood. He spent the next two years observing and befriending the men and women who care for horses and ride there, including young people from the neighborhood.

Their stories were often moving and profound. Staub knew there was plenty here for a story, and so he turned his research into a screenplay (also based on Greg Neri’s novel Ghetto Cowboy).

Still, his expectations were low: Staub knew from his time as Mercer’s assistant that “Hollywood isn’t exactly clamoring” for stories about Black cowboys in the city.

So Elba’s enthusiastic “yes” was stunning, as was the speed at which the financing came together (thanks to producer Lee Daniels, who came on board after Elba). With Elba in one of the leads, the project was suddenly star-driven, and the star was there to learn.

» READ MORE: Lee Daniels talks about ‘U.S. vs. Billie Holiday’ and the Black women of Philly who inspire all his work

“It was really more like making a documentary than making a film. The community was super excited about us being there — but they weren’t going to allow us to become Hollywood. They made sure we were there to depict them truthfully,” Elba said.

He plays Harp, who takes in his estranged teen son Cole (Caleb McLaughlin, from Stranger Things) when the boy has a falling out with his mother. Elba and McLaughlin (and Lorraine Toussaint, along with other professional actors) share generous screen time with Fletcher Street regulars Jamil Prattis, Ivannah-Mercedes, and a dozen others.

Fidelity to their story was key. “We spent a lot of time, just in the architecture stage, on how we were going to achieve it, and that really meant embracing the community input,” Elba said, “from the casting right down to the improvisations.”

Prattis and others often contributed their own dialogue. There are subtle but invaluable contributions too from the late Eric Miller — a Fletcher Street stalwart killed during a robbery in his home just a week before production began.

His words, captured on more than 10 hours of recordings that Staub recorded during his research, ended up forming much of what emerges as Harp’s healing philosophy in the movie. Elba also used Miller’s audio to arrive at his Philly dialect.

Miller’s sister, Elise, Staub says, broke down on set one day watching Elba deliver a speech that contained so much of the residue of her brother’s life and spirit.

“It’s like he’s right here,” she told him, which for Staub will rank as the best review he’s ever likely to receive, though the movie was warmly received at the Toronto Film Festival, where it played in September, and was snapped up by Netflix.

Elba had no trouble sharing the spotlight with the real cowboys.

“We would sit around swapping stories. Every now and again Ricky would just pick up the camera and just start filming,” Elba said. “It feels very authentic and very real, and that’s why.”

The contributions of local cast members include oral histories of Black Philadelphians and their horsemanship, which go back more than a century to a pre-motorized, horse and buggy city, when there were multiple stables with Black operators and workers. (The erasure of the Black cowboy from Hollywood westerns is also invoked.)

That world gave way to a prolonged period of displacement, gentrification, and attrition.

In Concrete Cowboy, the value of the stables transcends leases and buildings. Fletcher Street, for instance, provides middle ground for Harp and Cole, father and son, to set aside grievances and grow closer (with a moving reference to Philadelphia’s connection to John Coltrane), in a place where Cole is safe from dangerous influences.

Acting and imagination

“This was particularly trepidatious for me,” said Elba, who was blessed to have a good relationship with his father. The same is true, he said, of co-star McLaughlin, so the friction between them on screen is a work of acting and imagination.

“My late father was always there for me, and his was there for him, and we were playing characters on opposite ends of that spectrum,” Elba says. “It was great for us to discover that on camera.”

The movie also captures the documented magic that happens when a young person cares for an animal, learning the empathy, patience, and responsibility that come with nurturing and bonding with a horse.

It is this nexus — beneficial to both horse and rider — Elba said, that makes the preservation of places like Fletcher Street a priority.

“I would love for Fletcher Street to be recognized as sacred ground,” said Elba, set aside “where you can’t just go in and build a new house. You’re going to take away that history.”

He understands that is not likely to happen, and has joined Staub and some of the Fletcher Street cowboys in advocating for the next best thing.

The Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy, “an extension of the original Fletcher Street Stable,” is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit raising funds to establish a new and permanent facility in the city. At thepura.org, there is a link to a GoFundMe page where organizers hope to raise $2 million for the venture. (A separate GoFundMe campaign supporting North Philly’s horse culture that is not affiliated with the movie is being organized by the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club. Details on that effort are at gofundme.com under the name “Help FSURC Get Back In the Saddle.”)

» READ MORE: As ‘Concrete Cowboy’ premieres on Netflix, two Philly riding groups could benefit

“We want to try to find a way to relocate them to a place where they have equal importance, as they have over time,” Elba said. And where men like Harp can continue to save lives — human and otherwise, he said.

Elba is currently shooting the movie Three Thousand Years of Longing for George Miller, co-starring Tilda Swinton. He also plans on making a film version of the BBC show Luther, which helped make him a star, as did his run on HBO’s The Wire as the ambitious drug dealer Stringer Bell.

He understands why viewers were drawn to Stringer, with his Machiavellian élan, but part of his goal in Concrete Cowboy was to draw attention to less glamorized archetypes.

“Harp is essentially uncelebrated, but equally he’s a big man on the block,” said Elba. As his career has progressed, Elba said, he’s increasingly drawn to characters who have a productive energy.

“There are Harps in stables all over America,” he says. “Harp should be celebrated too.”

JOIN US ON INQUIRER LIVE

Concrete Cowboy director Ricky Staub, and Ivannah-Mercedes, one of the Fletcher Street riders from the Netflix film, sit down 4:15 p.m. Thursday, April 8, with The Inquirer’s Ellen Gray to talk about the new father-son drama starring Idris Elba on Inquirer LIVE. Register here today.