Call it the greatest Fort Worth story ever told.
The true-life saga of a prayerful mission volunteer and her persistent friendship with a wise but wary homeless man sold more than 1 million books, and now the late Deborah Hall and Denver Moore are subjects of a Renee Zellweger movie.
The long-awaited local premiere of “Same Kind of Different As Me” drew a tough audience Wednesday at Ridgmar Mall: Hall’s and Moore’s friends, people who remember both from those rocky days at Union Gospel Mission downtown.
“I think it was as genuine a movie as it could possibly be,” said Mary Ellen Davenport of Fort Worth. She loaned Zellweger home videos to study Hall, a mission volunteer driven by love, faith and by a 1998 dream about meeting an African-American man who would uplift the city.
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Hall’s husband, Dallas art dealer Ron Hall, co-wrote the 2006 book with Moore along with the screenplay for the movie. It’s showing on more than 1,300 screens nationwide this weekend in a release by Pure Flix, an Arizona-based evangelical Christian studio.
“If Deborah saw it,” Davenport said, “she’d be saying, ‘Ron, can you believe it?’ ”
Deborah Hall was diagnosed with cancer in 1999, a year after she began volunteering at the mission. On her first night there, she had dreamed about a “wise man who changes the city.”
When Moore stormed into the dining hall the next night shirtless, cursing and throwing punches, threatening to kill whoever stole his shoes, Hall said he was in her dream.
West African-born actor Djimon Hounsou portrays Moore, then 61, as a standoffish, bat-wielding, window-bashing ex-con, embittered from violent 1950s encounters with whites in Klan-plagued Red River Parish, La., south of Shreveport.
At first, Moore wouldn’t even exchange looks with Hall. But her unrelenting kindness slowly overcame Moore’s distrust of white volunteers and what he called whites’ “catch-and-release” friendships with black Americans.
In one scene, Hounsou as Moore was skeptical when Ron Hall (played by Greg Kinnear) asked if the Halls could be his friend.
“You want to be my friend?” Hounsou as Moore said: “I’m going to have to think about that.”
Years later, Moore said God “put Miss Debbie in my life like a bright star.”
Hall died in 2000, and Moore delivered the eulogy. Ron Hall moved Moore into his Dallas mansion, and the two wrote the book together.
They went on to raise money for Union Gospel Mission and more than $50 million for shelters nationwide before Moore’s death in 2012.
Some of Moore’s violent anger is exaggerated in the movie, mission executive Don Shisler said before the showing. Shisler described Moore more as just “kind of a mean hombre.”
Moore warmed quickly to attention. In summer 1998, he was a special guest at a shelter groundbreaking, according to Star-Telegram archives.
There’s more to the story of Ron Hall, but I’ll leave that to the screen.
The movie was in the works for years and was shot in 2014 in Jackson, Miss. An early trailer, then from Paramount Pictures, drew derision for cliché depictions of a privileged white couple and a forceful African-American hero who teaches lessons about race, love and friendship.
(Think “The Blind Side” but with Zellweger instead of Sandra Bullock.)
Critics miss the real message, said Alan Davenport, Mary Ellen’s husband and a doctor who volunteers at the mission clinic.
“The purity and kindness and love in Debbie’s heart is well-represented,” he said: “It’s a story of redemption.”
Yes, finishing the movie took a long time.
But in a nation deeply divided by race, wealth, class and privilege, this might be the right time.