Concrete Cowboy, a film shot in Philly last summer starring Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin of Stranger Things, made its world premiere on Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival and is getting big buzz this week as one of the festival’s breakout films.
Reviewers have weighed in from Vanity Fair, the Hollywood Reporter, Shadow and Act, Deadline Hollywood, and more, giving both the movie and North Philly’s Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club a turn in the national spotlight as Concrete Cowboy seeks a distributor — and eventually a release date.
The Hollywood Reporter celebrates the Strawberry Mansion stables where Philly’s Black cowboys ride as being “delightfully incongruous.” Riders Ivannah Mercedes and Jamil “Mil” Prattis, who have roles in the movie, get a shout-out from Vanity Fair. The early critical consensus finds the film to be inspiring and well-acted, if predictable.
Based on Greg Neri’s 2009 novel Ghetto Cowboy, the movie follows the story of 15-year-old Cole (McLaughlin), a troubled teen whose mother sends him to North Philadelphia to live with his estranged father (Elba). Cole discovers that horseback riding could serve as a refuge from the poverty and grim realities of his neighborhood.
Concrete Cowboy, produced by Lee Daniels and Elba, is the directing debut for Ricky Staub.
The Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club is a Philadelphia organization in which Black people celebrate horse-riding and build community by teaching neighborhood youths to care for horses. The club has been around for over 100 years and was named after a vacant lot on Fletcher Street in North Philadelphia.
According to the Deadline review, the acting in Concrete Cowboy is “sympathetic in every way." The sight of horses and their riders is “so anachronistic now that it provides a quietly unique charm.”
Elba, 48, is “easing well into roles as an elder statesman," says the review published in Vanity Fair. Elba’s character, Harp, is “stern and stubborn” and “precisely the stoic father figure whose approval anyone would crave.”
In a Twitter Q&A on Monday, McLaughlin said that while on set, he connected with Elba personally to help build a father-and-son dynamic.
“Idris and I communicated a lot,” said McLaughlin. “We talked in between takes. We actually sat down for an hour just to discuss ... our relationships with our own fathers. We had really deep conversations.”
“The film was my introduction to the Fletcher Street cowboys,” said Liz Priestley of Abington, who plays Elba’s wife Amahle. “It’s really exciting that the city is going to be highlighted in that way, and I really hope the film helps [the Fletcher Street cowboys] and other riding groups in the city.”
Priestley has over 25 years of theater experience in Philadelphia, but Concrete Cowboy is her feature film debut. She auditioned for the role last summer, and at that time her character was written as “a drug addict getting kicked out of an apartment and having a hard life,” Priestley said. To prepare for the several rounds of auditions, Priestley stayed awake for “days at a time, just to make myself look really exhausted."
“But in the movie, she ends up being more professional, she’s a nurse. She’s just a woman who ends up reaching the end of her rope" in her marriage.
Priestley believes the film tells an important Philadelphia story.
“It’s a really great time to tell Black stories, I think we need them,” Priestley said. “We need to be able to see our people being more than stereotypes by telling real stories that have existed for 100 years. This film carries a lot of weight with it."