Film & TV

The Bulldozers of Social Justice

Catherine Keener in ‘Little Pink House’ (Brightlight Pictures)
Little Pink House is a devastating dramatization of Susette Kelo’s battle to keep her house from politicians invoking ‘eminent domain.’

Working on behalf of a giant corporation and a corrupt politician, a development czar explains at a town-hall meeting why it’s necessary to bulldoze a group of houses nestled by a river: to “help those in need,” of course. “The jobless, the homeless, the people on the fringes of society will benefit the most from this plan,” says the development executive. Replies an incredulous resident: “You’re gonna help the homeless by kicking people out of their homes?”

Welcome to the Dr. Strangelove War Room of property rights.

That caustically written scene arrives in the middle of Little Pink House, a devastating and important dramatization of the efforts of New London, Conn., paramedic Susette Kelo (Catherine Keener) to retain her house against the onrushing bulldozers of the state. To see the movie is to take the red pill and be introduced to how much deception, cynicism, and corruption underlie even seemingly routine acts of government. Little Pink House should be viewed by every teen and young adult who is in danger of confusing government’s noble-sounding stated motives with its actual ones.

The plot to destroy Susette Kelo’s lovingly painted pink cottage gets started in the head of a corrupt Connecticut governor (whose name is not given in the movie but in reality is John Rowland). He is a Republican who seeks to shore up support in the Democratic-leaning working-class burg of New London and perhaps pictures a ribbon-cutting ceremony as a steppingstone to national office. So he hires a fixer named Charlotte Wells (Jeanne Tripplehorn) to reboot the dormant New London Development Corporation with an eye toward luring Pfizer, a huge company interested in buying up acres of waterfront for a new campus. Redefining the working-class area as “blighted,” she starts moving people out with a mixture of money and threats. Invocation of “eminent domain,” government-speak for “we’ll take what we want,” looms.

Some of the early scenes are a tad hackneyed, what with the evil pols conniving in leather club chairs and drinking Scotch, but Keener, who has made a career of playing waspish and tart women, proves surprisingly adept at turning Kelo into an avatar of big-hearted American determination, a successor to the heroes of Frank Capra movies. The writer-director Courtney Moorehead Balaker is painstaking about the various tricks government uses to adapt the rule of law to its own desires. In one infuriating scene, a city-council official blandly puts up to a vote a “final” issue about permission for a children’s chorus. When nearly everyone has left the chamber, he announces a final, final measure: a resolution to bulldoze Kelo’s neighborhood, where people are still living in their houses. The room is almost entirely empty when the resolution passes.

Without being preachy or partisan, Balaker exposes how government nostrums become weapons. “Social justice and economic development, they go hand in hand,” Wells tells the citizens, justifying the massive injustice she is perpetrating. Later, when a wrecking crew is doing to a house what a horse’s hoof would do to a shoebox, and an aging married couple have literally been carried away from their property by police, someone dryly remarks, “Interesting way to champion the cause of social justice, Charlotte.”

Only because of a libertarian group called Institute for Justice, which agreed to take Kelo’s case pro bono, do we even know Kelo’s name. Her lawyer gently informs her that she must be the face of the battle for property rights. Nothing in her life has prepared her for fame: “Why does it have to be me?” she says, and she is every American who has been dragged into a fight she never wanted.

At the end of the film we meet the real Susette Kelo, standing on an empty lot where her little pink house was razed because of appalling policy backed by outrageous jurisprudence.

Little Pink House doesn’t follow well-worn movie paths: How often does a dramatic turning point hinge on the publication of a George Will column? (Later Glenn Greenwald appears in the movie, very much on Will’s side.) It’s a vital dramatization of principles in a moment in which prominent people were so obviously on the wrong side that a parallel with the Jim Crow era suggests itself. A New London lawyer actually argues, “How is any city supposed to grow if you’re handcuffing leaders with vision? The whole plan is for the greater good!” Shame on anyone who believed this, and shame most especially on Justices Ginsburg, Kennedy, Stevens, Souter, and Breyer for affirming it in the Supreme Court, in a decision that agreed with the government that a poor landholder could be forced out in favor of a rich one because the rich one promised to provide more tax revenue. Take from the poor to give to the rich: This is how Ginsburg, Kennedy, et al. read the Constitution.

At the end of the film we meet the real Susette Kelo, standing on an empty lot where her little pink house was razed because of appalling policy backed by outrageous jurisprudence. It’s half a generation later and the Pfizer campus has still never been built. To the contrary, the company shut down an existing office and left the city entirely, despite the $80 million of subsidies the government lavished on it. The bare land Kelo stands on, home mainly to feral animals and weeds, is a stark illustration of what can happen to property rights when “leaders with vision” find them inconvenient.

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