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 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 influence.
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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 father-and-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.”
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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 co-starring 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.”