On Fletcher Street one summer season morning in 2019, Ricky Staub was requested to stroll the plank.
For a long time, Fletcher Street — a slice of North Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood — had been dwelling to city horse stables, and a hub for Black equestrians, and Staub had began spending time there after befriending a neighborhood rider.
That’s how Staub discovered himself struggling to push a wheelbarrow up an angled wood beam as a gaggle of steady regulars watched his each wobble. Staub was wanting to show himself. He’d proven up for a day of soiled steady work carrying clear, brilliant sneakers (“like an idiot”) and couldn’t afford one other rookie flub. Also, the wood plank was teetering atop a colossal pile of horse manure.
“I’m literally going to be thigh-deep if I fall,” Staub stated.
Lucky for him (and his sneakers), Staub stored his stability. And when he efficiently completed his activity, dumping the contents of the wheelbarrow — additionally stuffed with manure — onto the rising pile, the spectators erupted in applause.
That daring maneuver is one in every of a number of firsthand experiences that Staub, 37, recreated in “Concrete Cowboy,” his first function, which is now streaming on Netflix. In this coming-of-age story, a Detroit teenager (Caleb McLaughlin) is shipped to Philadelphia to reside along with his estranged father (Idris Elba, additionally a producer of the movie), who ekes out a modern-day cowboy existence on Fletcher Street, the place small stables sit modestly amongst rowhouses.
The film, which Staub and Dan Walser tailored from the young-adult novel “Ghetto Cowboy,” by G. Neri, could observe a well-known Hollywood arc, however it’s injected with extraordinary, generally surreal particulars drawn from Staub and Walser’s experiences hanging out with city horse riders in Philadelphia for about two years.
Consider, as an example, the campfire scene early within the film, when the riders collect round a hearth at night time, swapping tales by the sunshine of flames, which spew from the stomach of a steel barrel. It’s a tableau, full with cowboy hats, taken straight from a traditional western. It’s additionally one thing you would possibly see offscreen right this moment.
“In the summertime, any given night that you want to, you go around to Fletcher Street stables and there will be at least three guys with a tin-can fire sitting outside, just relaxing,” stated Ivannah-Mercedes, a rider who grew up caring for horses on Fletcher Street within the 2010s. Mercedes, who performs a fictional cowgirl in “Concrete Cowboy,” is one in every of a handful of riders — some nonetheless lively there, others now based mostly at totally different stables across the metropolis — who obtained concerned within the movie, on each side of the digicam.
The riders pointed to many particulars within the film that have been true to their very own experiences, chief amongst them that driving has proved an indispensable type of wholesome recreation in an atmosphere the place gun violence and different risks may be tough to keep away from.
Young folks “need alternatives,” stated Michael Upshur, 46, who started driving horses on Fletcher Street as a baby within the early ’80s. “If they only see people on the street corner, that’s what they’re going to gravitate to.”
Upshur stated that he had boarded greater than a dozen horses on Fletcher Street over time. Like different riders there, he views the stables as greater than a ardour or a pastime.
“Being with those horses taught me to have patience,” he stated. “I found myself thinking a lot more before I act.”
Upshur described methodically washing horses with a hose, watching as they playfully chomped on the stream of water. Over the a long time, he has typically ridden in Fairmount Park, a couple of 10-minute experience from the stables.
“There’s something about you and that park,” Upshur stated. “You can hear the sticks cracking while your horse is walking on those little twigs. You see the little squirrels running through, and the horse jumps a little bit — it calms you.”
Erin Brown, 37, remembers being instructed as a younger rider that “your horse is a reflection of the type of person that you are.” Brown, who discovered to experience on Fletcher Street within the early 1990s and later managed a barn there, stated that caring for horses gave her a way of duty when she was rising up. She stated that for a interval throughout her late teenagers, she “was headed down the wrong track,” however that the stables grounded her. She’s now knowledgeable driving teacher.
“I honestly don’t know where I would be today — and so many others can say the same thing — if it were not for the horses,” Brown stated.
Several Philadelphia riders teamed up with Staub and different members of the movie’s inventive group to create the Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy, a nonprofit that goals to keep up and protect the historical past of Black driving in Philadelphia. (Brown is the group’s govt director; Upshur and Mercedes are on its board of advisers.)
Riders on Fletcher Street have lengthy apprehensive about the way forward for the stables, as gentrification and new improvement loom. Each steady within the cluster on Fletcher Street is individually owned and managed. There have been issues with circumstances over time, resulting in run-ins with town and the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. And the massive, grassy discipline throughout from the stables — a set piece within the film that has served as an open house for riders — is now being developed. The Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy’s objective is to create everlasting stables the place riders from Fletcher Street and elsewhere within the metropolis could make a sustainable dwelling for his or her horses.
Brown, Upshur and Mercedes every emphasised that the historical past of city ridership in Philadelphia ought to be preserved, and that the sense of empowerment and duty that horses supply riders is a useful — and irreplaceable — asset in the neighborhood. The Hollywood actors in “Concrete Cowboy” sensed that, too.
Lorraine Toussaint, who performs one of many fictional riders, stated she was struck by “the discipline involved with the care and maintenance and love of these extraordinary animals.”
“I fell in love with horses so much,” she added, “that I actually went off and bought a horse farm after this film.”
Elba himself felt the push and grit that the actual riders described.
“These were really proud moments for me,” he stated. “It felt very powerful jumping on a horse — you feel tall. You’re on this majestic beauty of a beast.”
Elba was so dedicated to shining a lightweight on the Philadelphia driving neighborhood that he signed on to provide “Concrete Cowboy” when it was nonetheless a script in quest of financing and took up the problem of taking part in reverse precise native riders. He even contributed a track to the movie’s soundtrack.
Elba did all of this regardless of an unchangeable, moderately inconvenient reality: He’s allergic to horses.