We spoke with Idris Elba, Method Man, Jharrel Jerome, Lorraine Toussaint, and more about their new Netflix coming-of-age movie Concrete Cowboy.
In North Philadelphia, a thriving community of Black cowboys has existed for over a century. The Fletcher Street Stables is a century-long tradition of Urban Black Cowboys in the “City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection” who are committed to providing horsemanship experience in the inner-city. These Black urban cowboys and cowgirls have developed counterculture in Philadelphia, where horsemen maintain and care for horses and teach neighborhood youth to do so. The story of this community and their struggle against racism and gentrification is now the subject of a new Netflix film, Concrete Cowboy (out on April 2nd).
Adapted from Gregory Neri’s 2009 novel Ghetto Cowboy, Concrete Cowboy follows a troubled 15-year-old named Cole (Caleb Mclaughlin) who’s sent by his mother Nessie (Lorraine Toussaint) to live with his estranged father, Harp (Idris Elba) in North Philadelphia. While trying to repair their strained relationship, he discovers the world of urban horseback riding and a community that embraces him. The film also stars Jharrel Jerome (who plays Cole’s tough cousin Smush) and Clifford “Method Man” Smith (who plays local police officer Leroy.) Filmmaker Ricky Staub makes his feature-length debut as director and Philly-native Lee Daniels, along with Elba, are producers on the film.
We recently got the chance to speak with the cast of Concrete Cowboy: Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin, Jharrel Jerome, Lorraine Toussaint, and Method Man. They talked about the history and future of Black cowboys and cowgirls, what the Fletcher Street club taught them about life, and finding community in an unlikely place.
Concrete Cowboy is a coming-of-age story for Cole as a son but for Harp as a father as well. Idris, how did this role resonate with you as a Black father?
Idris Elba: At the heart of the film is this father and son storyline, which I want to see more of, you know? I think sometimes that Black men typically get a little bit of a hard time as fathers. Sometimes those storylines are not told well, or not told from a perspective that we can all relate to. So that’s why I wanted to take a look at it in this way as an actor and it touched me as a dad. I am looking forward to my sons watching the film and telling me how they feel about it so we can have those conversations. Harp doesn’t know how to be a father. When he sees Cole for the first time in so many years, emotions start to bubble because he realizes what his absence has caused.
How did you first hear about the production of the film?
Idris Elba: I read the script on a flight and as soon as I landed, I wanted to be a part of the film. I came on as a producer of the film before I came on as an actor. I was keen on getting a story that had common truths that really with a new lens because not too many people knew much about the stables in Philly.
Caleb, playing Cole, you had to convey so many emotions from rage to vulnerability. How were you able to identify with the character in such a real way?
Caleb Mclaughlin: It was definitely an experience. My experience with my father is different from Cole’s and his life so it was a real challenge to dive into becoming Cole emotionally, physically, and mentally. But the beautiful thing was that their relationship was rekindled. It’s like you said, Cole and his father went through so many emotions that they had to make it through, you know? Cole wasn’t used to expressing himself and being dropped off in a new place was tough for him.
Cole had a lot going on with feeling abandoned by his father and then his mother. Do you feel it’s important for Black kids to be able to express their anger?
Caleb Mclaughlin: For sure. Cole had a lot of built-up anger because of his circumstances. At the beginning of the film, you see him with handcuffs on his back and blood on his mouth. Whenever he felt angry, he never spoke about it. That was his first time expressing that anger. I think the beautiful thing about this film is that he was able to express that anger about how he was feeling throughout those 15 years of his life. And at the end, you see him coming to an understanding with his father and then loving each other again.
Nessie brings a lot of spirituality to the community. Lorraine, did you feel it was important to portray a Black woman as the spiritual leader of the Fletcher Street community?
Lorraine Toussaint: Well, you know, that’s almost the easy part of it, because women traditionally tend to hold those reins in our communities and our families. What was more surprising to me is the number of women that are part of this cowboy community. They are active members, and they are riders, and they are committed to the cowboy, cowgirl way of life. Meeting these extraordinary horsewomen was an experience. Nessie is based on a real character. I met her, I learned to ride and fell in love with horses. I’ve always been a dog lover but I never thought I would be someone who would contemplate owning horses. They are magnificent creatures.
Cliff, your role as Leroy had you playing in both worlds a police officer who was once a Fletcher Street cowboy. How challenging was it to play a cop who was part of both communities?
Cliff “Method Man” Smith: It was a challenge. Because there’s this view of being a police officer and all the protocols but then there’s the Black man side. Leaving from that community where he grew up with these people, eating their mother’s cooking, and going to school with a lot of these people, he brings a different aspect to policing. As far as community policing goes, he’s actually from the community, he’s for the community, and he’s good for the community. There’s a part in the movie where it shows him not exactly choosing sides but having that understanding of where these people are from because he’s from there. He can make decisions based on that rather than protocol.
Coming up in Shaolin, was there an officer that reminded you of Leroy?
Cliff “Method Man” Smith: That’s crazy because I was just thinking about that. There was a cop around our way named Marshall. I never had a run-in with him but some of the dudes in my community grew up with him and went to school with him. We ran across each other years later at an airport where he works now. I think it’s possible for police to serve and protect the communities that they work in without bringing chaos. If law enforcement had better communication and relationships with Black communities, it would go a long way. I think for better or for worse, that’s what Leroy is trying to do.
Lastly, Jharrel, your character Smush was very complex. He was in the streets but he had big dreams for his life that he wasn’t afraid to share. Tell me why is it important for young Black men to dream beyond their circumstances?
Jharrel Jerome: I mean, there’s so much beauty to that. But it’s kind of sad because in this story that dream led to is the demise. But it’s so important to dream, it’s so important to want more than what you’re given, and to go and seek education in order to get to where you want to go. So a lot of young Black men may think that there’s only one way to get that bag and get that money but… there are multiple ways and it’s all about cracking that code and pushing through. I hope that’s what the viewers get from Smush.
Rashad Grove is a writer from NJ whose work has appeared on BET, Billboard, MTV News, Okayplayer, High Snobiety, Medium, Revolt TV, The Source Magazine, and others. You can follow him at @thegroveness for all of his greatness.