New Film Celebrates One Man’s Journey From Homelessness to NYT Best-Selling Author

Same Kind of Different As Me, a true story co-authored by a formerly homeless man, seeks to provoke people to compassion and action. It hit the big screen this weekend.

In Same Kind of Different As Me, Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou portrays Denver Moore, whose journey from homelessness is aided by Debbie Hall (Renée Zellweger).

By Josh Shepherd Published on October 22, 2017

Opening this weekend, Paramount Pictures’ biopic Same Kind of Different As Me presents a true story about bridging socioeconomic divides through mutual understanding. It centers on how international art dealer Ron Hall (Greg Kinnear) begins a friendship with homeless man Denver Moore (Djimon Hounsou), at the urging of Hall’s wife Debbie (Oscar winner Renée Zellweger).

The two men eventually co-wrote a New York Times bestseller, revealing how and what they learned from each other despite their differences. Hall and Moore began to speak together in churches and civic venues nationwide. Since 1998 when they first met, their efforts have raised more than $85 million for charity groups addressing poverty and homelessness.

In the midst of degrading scandals consuming Hollywood, this film charts a unique path to telling a story that inspires and entertains. Same Kind of Different As Me doesn’t shy away from controversy, addressing issues of class and racism head-on. Longtime anti-poverty advocate and Oscar nominee Hounsou, who portrays Moore, called homelessness a “dream killer” at the film’s Los Angeles premiere.

This moment in the spotlight is bittersweet for Ron Hall, whose friend Denver Moore died in 2012 at age 75. In an interview from his Texas home, Hall speaks about the root causes of poverty, what Moore’s family thinks of the film and how he’s seen authentic friendship change people — mostly himself.

The Stream: In over a decade of knowing Denver Moore, what did you find was different about him?

Ron Hall: Denver was the wisest man I have ever known. He was a true friend. In the beginning, he didn’t want to be my friend — in fact, he didn’t want to have any friends.

“God is in the recycling business. A lot of you thought I was trash on your streets. Let me tell you something: God can turn trash into a treasure.” — Denver Moore

His definition of a friend is someone willing to lay down his own life to be a friend, if that’s what it took. He said my wife, whom he called Miss Debbie, was the first true friend he had known since his early childhood days of tragedy.

Eight years after he and I met, Denver received an award for Philanthropist of the Year from the city of Fort Worth, Texas. He was a man who had lived in a dumpster, in the hobo jungle for 25 years. All of a sudden, he was standing in a ballroom of 800 people who stood to applaud him.

He said to them: “God is in the recycling business. A lot of you thought I was trash on your streets. Let me tell you something: God can turn trash into a treasure.” Debbie and I shared a friendship with him we counted as a treasure. He had a dramatic character arc, which Same Kind of Different As Me portrays and celebrates.

The Stream: After seeing only the movie trailer, some critics note concerns about stereotypes. What do Denver’s family think of how Djimon Hounsou portrays their father?

Ron Hall: His daughter and granddaughter were there on opening night. The granddaughter never got to meet Denver. Unfortunately, being a homeless, mentally disturbed man on the streets at the time, Denver had little contact with his family.

His daughter got to know him in her mid-fifties. He was still angry and confused — what he would later call, “a little bit throwed off.” From the time we met him until he passed away, Denver was a changed man. She got to experience that in the years she knew him.

For her to be sitting in a big-screen Los Angeles film premiere, watching a celebrated actor portray her father, she called it remarkable. His daughter said, “I’m so proud of my daddy.” She saw how his life is worthy of celebration.

So the critics could not be further from the truth. We just portrayed him honestly, as who he was to us as a human being. It was easy to portray. When you tell the truth, you don’t have to make it something that it’s not.

The Stream: Many characters in the film, black and white, face the realities of homelessness and poverty. In your work on these issues, what do you see as the root causes?

Ron Hall: I believe the root causes of poverty are lack of hope and lack of education. Homelessness results when you run out of friendships, relationships and family. Then you have no one else to help take care of you, support you and help you get through troubled times.

Once you get so low that you can’t get back up, you need some help. I recall one interview where Denver said, “I never could lift anybody up, because back then I was always standing over them with a baseball bat. I was keeping them down.”

My wife Debbie showed him empathy that gave him hope. She got below him and lifted him up.

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The Stream: This story speaks into issues of class and wealth, as what Denver observes about tennis at a country club: “Any game you have to have an appointment to play is a rich man’s game.” What is the message to those who have advantages in life?

Ron Hall: You have to have rich people to support and help those who don’t have jobs. To quote Denver, “It takes all kinds to make a world. God uses rich people to give others jobs that need them.” It doesn’t mean you have to stay poor. Everyone has hope and opportunity.

If you want to work hard for it, he believed everyone could achieve a certain measure of success. “It may not be that you become a zillionaire,” Denver would say, but you could certainly be living on your own in a house.

He never dreamed or thought he could do that until he had people who wouldn’t give up on him and made him believe in himself.

The Stream: You faced a long path in making this film. When you nearly lost the rights to your own life story, why did you go to such lengths to get it back?

Ron Hall: We went through a previous failed attempt that distorted our story so greatly. I learned I could not just trust anybody with this story. It’s too precious and life-changing. Just this morning, a woman in Charlotte, North Carolina e-mailed to say she was totally transformed by the book. We get these all the time, because the story is transformative.

The movie version that was previously written was such a dark story. It might have entertained somebody, but it wasn’t our story. I just could not let that kind of falsehood damage what Same Kind of Different As Me means. It’s a story of redemption, hope, friendship, and how the world can be changed through one act of kindness at a time.

So I couldn’t let that other version go forward. It took me to bankruptcy to defend and get my rights back.

The Stream: Among the acclaimed cast in the film, who were you most surprised to get?

Ron Hall: All of them! For a first-time filmmaker with really no money to pay, to get Oscar winners and Oscar nominees, they had to resonate with this story and this dream. They caught our vision to change attitudes in America — one act of kindness at a time. They signed up to make a difference, not for the money. I’m still in awe.

I was sitting on a panel last week at Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills with journalists from all over America. Glancing down the line on stage were Greg Kinnear, Djimon Hounsou, Jon Voight and Renée Zellweger, the stars in this film.

Reporters were asking me questions, and I’m thinking, I don’t belong on this panel! This was just my story, the ones who portrayed it are some of the most renowned actors in the world. The scene was so surreal, I wondered if maybe I was watching it from eternity.

It’s the condition of our heart that keeps us from reconciling or loving those who are different from us.

The Stream: You talk about making a difference, which is being discussed a lot in the context of racial tensions. Your film includes flashbacks to the Jim Crow era — and a clearly racist character. How can people “make a difference” in the midst of racial divisions?

Ron Hall: We have to have new eyes to see it. It’s not the color of our skin that divides us. It’s all about the heart. It’s the condition of our heart that keeps us from reconciling or loving those who are different from us. It doesn’t matter what color, race or creed you are. If your heart is right, we can come together. This is what the film illustrates beautifully.

Homeless and wealthy people look at each other differently. It took us to get our hearts right to want to be Denver’s friend. It took Denver to get his heart right to allow us to be his friend. This is a story of how we were all thrown together to save each other. I had far more changing to do. Denver stayed true to himself.

Honestly, Denver saved me from myself. It was at his insistence that I went back to my alcoholic, racist father to end a longstanding feud. I really disliked my dad, portrayed in the film by Jon Voight. Denver told me, “There’s a good man inside him, but your daddy has a lot of hell in him. You’ve just got to bless the hell out of him.”

His friendship produced in me a great love for my father. My prayer is that this true story will cause everyone to examine the condition of their own hearts.

The Stream: You’ve been raising money for nonprofit groups since the Bush era. How has the national conversation on homelessness and poverty changed since then?

Ron Hall: I don’t see that there is a national conversation on homelessness and poverty going on. I think we get sidetracked on so many other irrelevant things right now. Denver, this poor man who was wise, came up with a perfect plan. They thought he was crazy, but he turned out to be smarter than all of us.

He had a brilliant strategy to end homelessness in America. It is simply: every church in America, take in one homeless person, provide for their needs, show them love and kindness, and get them back to a point where they can be a profitable member of society. They become upstanding citizens again, instead of someone who is a beggar on the streets. It’s only through love that can happen.

Denver used to say, “Everybody in America looks at the homeless as a problem. Let me tell you something, Ron — homelessness is an opportunity for the faithful to show the love of Christ.” That really is the hope of glory for our nation, for this problem of homelessness.

I believe if people see our film, they will come away with new eyes. They will look at others and not wonder, What’s going to happen to me if I stop to help and talk to this person? The question will be rather, What’s going to happen to them if I don’t?

Honor people who are homeless. When you have to be on the street begging, that’s the worst thing that could happen to any person. They often feel so less than human. It takes open hearts to be willing to be kind, even to stop for a moment and ask a person his name. We need to see their beautiful humanity.

 

 

Same Kind of Different As Me, released by Paramount Pictures and Pure Flix, opens in theaters nationwide this weekend.

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  • Wayne Cook

    It will take a different kind of church to do that, one that breathes Jesus.

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