Same kind of different

Five years ago, when I was a member of a different Sunday School class than the one I teach now, we used the book “Same Kind of Different As Me,” by Ron Hall, Denver Moore and Lynn Vincent. It’s a terrific book; I highly recommend it. Now, there’s a trailer for the upcoming movie adaptation starring Greg Kinnear as Ron Hall, Renee Zelwegger as Debbie Hall and Djimon Hounsou as Denver Moore.

I read a really vicious little essay today from someone unfamiliar with the book who had an extreme negative reaction to the trailer, calling it a “magical negro” movie and criticizing Hounsou’s accent as Moore.

Obviously, not having seen the movie (which will be released in February), I have no more right to defend it than the other writer did to attack it. But I have, unlike him, read the book.

In case you’re not familiar with the term “magical negro,” it refers disparagingly to movies (in particular) or other works of fiction in which a kindly black character exists primarily not for the purpose of his own story but to inspire or facilitate things for the white lead character.

I completely understand the frustration with “magical negro” stories taking the place of real stories about African-Americans, giving white viewers like me a warm and tingly feeling rather than challenging us to look more honestly at the state of race relations in this country.

But I did not find the book to be guilty of that. On the contrary, the structure of the book was specifically employed to tell Denver’s story as well as Ron’s. The book is written (and I’m assuming that it’s actually Lynn Vincent, an experienced co-author, who did most of the writing) in alternating chapters, one written in Ron’s voice and the next written in Denver’s. The book paints a stark and challenging portrait of Denver’s background as a sharecropper in Mississippi, showing the injustice that made sharecropping a sort of legalized slavery which left illiterate farmers deeper and deeper in debt to their white landlords. Denver becomes violent, serves time, and then becomes a homeless vagrant. The first half of the book, particularly, is really more memorably about Denver than about Ron.

Meanwhile, Ron Hall is one of the top art dealers in the DFW metroplex, but his marriage is struggling after he has an affair. In an attempt to salvage things, he joins his wife in her volunteer work at a local homeless shelter, which is where they encounter Denver. Ron — awkwardly and reluctantly — reaches out to Denver, and eventually the two of them become friends, supporting each other in the face of a punch-in-the-gut tragedy. (There were parts of the book that were difficult for me to read at the time, because of a comparable family tragedy that was still fresh in my own memory.)

The movie, based on the trailer, looks like it hews pretty close to the book, although a lot will depend on how much time they give to Denver’s background, something you only see a few glimpses of in the trailer.

As for Hounsou’s accent, well, here’s video of the actual man he’s portraying. (Denver Moore died in 2012.) Judge for yourself.

I have to say I’m looking forward to seeing the movie in February.

Oh — I need to add that I’m no relation whatsoever to the movie’s director, Michael Carney, even though I have a brother by that name. (And I’m no relation to the director of “Once,” either.)

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