Opening Today: Catherine Keener in “Little Pink House”

I had several reasons for wanting to see Little Pink House, which opens today in seven cities. One is that I love Catherine Keener. The other is that it is set in, and was shot in, New London, Connecticut, a town I have many connections to. My dad worked there when I was growing up. We lived 40 minutes away. Many of my ancestors lived there. I was born two towns over.  And this made me pay close attention to the Supreme Court case this film is based on, Kelo v. City of New London (2005).

Kelo v. City of New London is one of the worst decisions in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court, up there with the Dred Scott decision. It is a decision so bad, and with such horrifying implications, that conservatives and lefty liberals alike are united in their hatred for it. Basically, it nullifies the basic Constitutional right to private property, one of the foundations of all of our freedoms. The City of New London used eminent domain to force an entire neighborhood of homeowners out of their houses in order to transfer the property to an economic development corporation that would in turn sell it Pfizer, with the city and state sweetening the pot with lots of tax breaks. The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment permits such acquisition for public purposes, traditionally considered to consist of things like schools, hospitals, roads, dams, military installations, etc. The definition of public use began to get broader in the 20th century when eminent domain began to be used for the creation of public housing. But towards the turn of the century, an even newer interpretation decided that “jobs” and “economic development” also qualified as “public use.” Basically this translated into a bunch of working class people being displaced in order to accommodate the needs of a multi-million dollar corporation. Lawyers from The Institute for Justice argued on behalf of Kelo and her neighbors and lost.  The galling rub is — in the end, after they’d won their case, Pfizer left anyway. The houses were torn down, but no jobs were created, and the Fort Trumbull neighborhood was replaced by empty lots full of mud and refuse.

So it’s an outrage, and one that every American should be alarmed about. Basically it means that, on a whim, on some gossamer boondoggle, crooks in government can take your house and land and give it to their cronies. They’re obligated to pay you for it, but what if it’s been in your family for 150 years? What if your children grew up there? What if your own loving craftsmanship went into the floors, ceiling, and walls? Doesn’t matter. Basically, you no longer own your own property, making the supposed protections of the Constitution a sort of joke. There ought to have been a much huger hue and cry about this doleful development, but this all happened sort of on the quiet. The 21st century has been an eventful one and not in a good way. New London began its evictions around 2000. Think what happened shortly after that. Suzette Kelo and her neighbors were in the middle of their struggle when September 11 happened. 9/11, and the aftermath, monopolized headlines for years. Then, shortly after the decision, came Hurricane Katrina. Then the political polarization of the last decade. (It may surprise you, btw, to know that the dissenters in the Kelo case were the members of the conservative wing of the court. This was a rare case of the conservatives being on the side of the angels, defending the rights of the little guy over the big guy — the big guy in this case being an unholy combination of government and big business.)

The main reason for seeing Courtney Moorehead Balaker’s film about Kelo’s titular Little Pink House is moral and political. It’s good to watch if it gets you incensed and involved and it ought to. The commendable project attracted not only the talented Keener to play Kelo, but also Jeanne Tripplehorn and Callum Keith Rennie. And David Crosby contributed an original song called “Home Free”. The story obviously spoke to their hearts. Artistically, it’s a bit of a paint-by-numbers, the sort of thing one finds on the Lifetime network. It’s no Silkwood or Norma Rae, nor does it contain the finest moments of any of these actors.  It’s also been fictionalized in querulous ways. The name of Connecticut College has been changed to “Walthrop College”. The name of the head of the New London Development Corporation has been changed from Claire Gaudiani to “Dr. Charlotte Wells”. And I don’t think we ever hear the name of the crooked Connecticut governor who sets the whole thing in motion, or the Supreme Court justices who decide the case. So much for courage in the face of injustice! But Kelo is named, and her courage shines through. In fact, the most moving moment of the film for me was documentary footage of the real Kelo testifying in court, and standing where her house used to be. That voice! She sounds like home to me. An ordinary citizen thrust onto a national stage, a David going up against a greedy Goliath.

To learn more about the case, there are these books: Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage, by Jeff Benedict (the book on which the film is based); and The Grasping Hand: “Kelo v. The City of New London” and the Limits of Eminent Domain, by Ilya Somin. And just Google the case — you will find much legal and political commentary about it online. You need to know about it. It’s not hyperbolic to say that this case is one of the defining lines that determine the difference between freedom and tyranny.