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‘Concrete Cowboy’ Highlights The Power of the Inner-City Horseman

March 30, 2021
4 min read time

The visuals of Concrete Cowboy are stunning; a horse running alongside a bus route in the middle of Philadelphia. A rodeo in an empty urban field. A sunset highlighting the beauty of urban decay and the silhouette of a cowboy in the distance. What’s even more incredible is that these are all real images of North Philadelphia; not conjured for Hollywood, but instead embracing a rich history of urban riders perhaps unknown to many until now. 

The film is influenced by (and stars several members of) the Fletcher Street Stables, a nonprofit organization founded by Ellis Ferrell in North Philadelphia in 1980. The members are horse lovers who practice equestrian sports while caring for horses that need second chances, much like themselves.

Initially, the Fletcher Street horses were bought at livestock auctions and would likely have been killed had they not found their way to the inner city. Many of their caretakers also found the riding club at a vulnerable moment, where alternative activities involved drug dealing or gang initiation. Fletcher Street and all the urban horse clubs in Philadelphia stand as a beacon of black urban horsemanship, which has passed down an incredible legacy that is now in danger.  

Filmmaker Ricky Staub came upon the urban riders because of the location of his office in North Philadelphia; the Fletcher Street stables were just a few miles away.

“The original idea was to just make a movie to draw attention to the stables and the fact they were facing gentrification,” Staub said.

“There were already plans for developing the land by the stables when I first met everyone. We knew that we needed to start by writing a good script, so it started there.” 

Staub became so fascinated with his cowboy neighbors that he set out to acquire Greg Neri's novel Ghetto Cowboy to help get the project off the ground.

Then, as if by fate, he and writing partner Dan Walser met Eric Miller. 

Through their production company Neighborhood Film Co., Staub and Walser hire those recently released from incarceration as apprentices. The two were speaking at court to recruit new hires when they met Miller; he had been paroled the previous week and told a judge he just purchased a horse. 

Staub soon became close with Miller; he calls him his closest collaborator on the project, along with Jamil “Mil” Prattis (a longtime Fletcher Street rider who plays a cowboy in the film).

“We were hanging out a lot and with them I rode my first horse, drank around a lot of campfires, and had to hold my own," Staub said.

"I recorded these conversations and hour-long chats around grooming and working with the horses and that was the beginning of it all.”  

The film was shot at Fletcher Street and in and around the greater area. According to Staub, the process was not easy.

“Difficult would be an understatement,” he said.

“Having Idris Elba makes you a formidable presence in the neighborhood.”

Local real estate agents and the community at large helped Staub complete the project.

“It felt like we were being welcomed into their home, and we took great lengths to give back," he said.

"We took care of the horses' food and boarding for the four months we were there; we used a local rental hall that’s used for local parties. It just felt really cool to put a lot of money back in the local economy and a lot of community members in front of and behind the camera.” 

The warmth of the process carries into the story of the film. It’s a quiet movie about strength and the relationship between two estranged men, who reconnect through the power of horsemanship.

Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) arrives at Fletcher Street with two trash bags full of clothes and a very angry mother. She locks her car door and drives away, informing him he will spend the summer with his father, Harp (Idris Elba), whose horse happens to reside in the living room because he loves him so much. Harp has strict rules for the summer  many of which involve mucking stalls and grooming  and Cole often feels as though Harp is a father to everyone but him. Still, the bond between the two men becomes not only palpable, but undeniable. 

Staub said the actors were out with the horses and cowboys as soon as they arrived.

"These two are also just at the top of their game," he said.

"Sometimes we only had 20 or 30 minutes to rehearse, and I was just mesmerized. Their chemistry. Everything. I had never worked with actors in general, and these two were magical.” 

The connection between the actors seemed to extend to their relationships with the cowboys who make up the main posse of Fletcher Street in the film. Not surprisingly, Staub is now working to help the group find permanent homes for their horses; the cowboys’ predicament in the film  renters, as opposed to owners, who have little say in what happens to their property  is pretty close to the reality the riding club is living.

Staub has partnered with locals in the community to create a nonprofit for the Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy. The goal is to raise $2 million to purchase city land and give the horses a permanent home (their GoFundMe page can be found here).

While Staub’s movie is both a cowboy and a horse movie, it’s maybe most importantly a Philadelphia movie. In answering what he wants audiences to take away about Philadelphia, Staub replies with a smile.

"Sometimes people think of Philadelphia as a dirty, old or mean city, but I think there’s so much beauty underneath that first layer of reaction," he said.

"There’s so much community. The people that inhabit the blocks you see in the movie, optically people look and think it's broken or dirty, and there’s no way the horses who live there are well cared-for or well loved, and it’s totally the opposite."

Instead, Staub says, the community is full of love.

"It may sometimes seem hidden by violence or drug use, but even some of the drug dealers I’ve known are beautiful and wonderful people. I want people to walk away knowing that this part of Philadelphia is a beautiful and wonderful place.” 

As the neighbors of Fletcher Street clearly demonstrate, it’s impossible not to smile when you see a cowboy in the middle of the city, and it feels impossible not to smile at the end of Concrete Cowboy, too.

Concrete Cowboy is available on Netflix April 2.

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