Rear of the Year is a light-hearted award for celebrities considered to have notable posteriors. In 2017 it was awarded to British actor Idris Elba. A couple of years later he was to give that “toned and firm gluteus maximus” a bit of a bashing when he undertook many gruelling weeks of riding in preparation for the lead role of Harp in Concrete Cowboy (2020, Netflix), based on Philadelphia’s Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club.
Coupled with his inability to ride was an allergy to horses, which meant he had to wear gloves and long-sleeved shirts when near them, otherwise he would suffer sneezing fits and a runny nose. “I had to put aside my own discomfort,” says Elba, who not only had to portray a skilled horseman but one from North Philadelphia.
“I learnt the lingo of the community and the characteristics of someone from that area. Training with the horses went beyond learning how to ride. You have to understand and bond with them as they quickly realise who are on their backs.”
He did well – his Philly accent is good and he sits well in the saddle. A Time magazine film reviewer stated: “Astride a horse, Elba radiates a citified elegance, like the stranger who rides into town and instantly captivates every local”.
Premiering last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, this cowboy movie is very different to a Hollywood western. It follows 15-year-old Cole, Caleb McLaughlin, who’s sent to live with Harp, his estranged father. (McLaughlin is also sensitive to horses and had to take daily doses of allergy medication!). Harp is a member of a riders’ collective, which has built stables in a warehouse, grazing their horses on a vacant grass lot among the city’s terraced houses and apartment buildings.
While Concrete Cowboy itself is fiction – it’s based on Greg Neri’s novel Ghetto Cowboy – the film is heavily inspired by a community of African American riders in North Philadelphia, an area traditionally home to very poor families. Ricky Staub, the film’s writer/director, spent two years visiting the stables getting to know the people, some of whom he cast in the picture. These non-actors perform very well, better than many of the professionals, in fact, and the end credits are dedicated to them telling their stories and how important the Fletcher Street community and culture is to them.
Jamil “Mil” Prattis, 29, portrays a paraplegic named Paris who shares an emotional scene with Cole about his dead brother. Prattis isn’t paralysed in real life but his story about how his brother died is true. “If it weren’t for the stables I’d probably be locked up. I was a bad boy,” he admits. “Fletcher Street turned me around.”
Several years before Concrete Cowboy, he had been the subject of a 25-minute documentary. Mil’s Life showed how horses, especially one-eyed Dusty, had a major effect on changing the course of his life. “I wanted to convey how Mil’s close relationship with Dusty created an oasis of hope in the landscape of North Philadelphia,” said director, Zach Hauptman, when the documentary was screened at the 2014 Equus Film Festival in New York City.
Erin Brown was another non-actor working as an extra and stunt double alongside Idris Elba. Her father, who repaired trailers for local horsemen, had taken her to visit the stables when she was six. “It became a lifelong obsession,” says Erin, now 36, who learnt to ride on a stallion named Dollar. “Many people believe stallions are wild and dangerous but from Dollar I learned how to ride safely and be alert.”