The biographical documentary, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, tells the story of a central figure and public spokesperson for a community that furiously challenged America's status quo. In telling the story of their father, the radical attorney William Kunstler, daughters Emily and Sarah also tell the story of the 1960s radical left. But with a personal slant.
After severing in the U.S. Army during World War II, William Moses Kunstler attended law school at Columbia University under the G.I. Bill and following graduation formed a modest law firm in suburban New York. Kunstler had liberal leanings, but nothing usual. For more than a decade he toiled at his general practice law firm. Then, in 1961 at the age of 50, the American Civil Liberties Union asked Kunstler to travel to Mississippi to defend jailed "freedom fighters." That was the end of the armchair liberal Kunstler. Soon came the Vietnam War and its huge antiwar movement, which also utilized his legal services. In 1968, in the wake of the Democratic Convention, Kunstler defended the Chicago 7 and became a national celebrity.
In the thick of the two most important oppositional movements of the 20th Century -- one for racial justice and other to end an unjust war -- Kunstler the liberal morphed into Kunstler the radical. When others fought to change American society, liberal Kunstler fought to keep the fighters out of jail. Now radical Kunstler also viewed court rooms as public venues to try the corrupt political system of the country.
The intellectual underpinnings of William Kunstler were straight forward: every white American was privileged and every minority was handicapped. The judicial system, controlled by whites, was a tool to control people of color. The problem, then, was not merely the law but the power structure of America. And the solution was a fundamental change of that power structure. Liberal Kunstler had once believed the law could change America, the radical Kunstler believed political education and power had to change America. Legal cases were now political causes -- everything was now political!
After the courtroom circus of the Chicago 7 trial was the Attica prison standoff, its deadly outcome was partially blamed on Kunstler. This was followed by the American Indian Movement's occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota that ended peacefully and successfully. Kunstler had effectively shifted the focus of the trial from the Indians to the federal government.
In his later years, William Kunstler focused nearly exclusively on high profile and emotionally charged criminal defense cases, often interjecting racism and political ideology. He defended the Mafia boss Don John Gotti, several black youths charged with gang raping a white woman in Central Park, an ugly real estate baron cheating on her taxes, a Palestinian who assassinated a Jewish political activist, a political activist who burned an American flag, a black who shot six New York City policemen in the Bronx, and at the time of his death at 76 from a heart attack, Omar Abdel-Rahman for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
William Kunstler won some cases and lost others, yet he consistently polarized Americans. One side insisted he was a hero for truth and justice, a defender of the oppressed and persecuted, a champion of what is good about America. The other side screamed he was a communist, a threat to national security, a destroyer of what is good about America. Although William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe sees much that is good and honorable and noble in William Kunstler, this film refuses to be pigeon holed in any corner. It sees lots of gray.
Emily Kunstler's narration makes it clear that for the two sisters this was not all a joy ride. Sometimes they could not understand their famous and controversial father's choices for clients, sometimes they strongly disagreed with his choices. Although they agreed that everyone, including the unsavory and dangerous, were entitled to legal defense, they disagreed that their father always had to be that legal defense. They grew suspicious of his motivations. He loved the attention, the spotlight. Had fame become a drug controlling him? Although respectful and loving, appreciative of the wisdom he passed on to them, admiring his determination to confront injustice, there is ambivalence and pain in their voice.
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe is a universe from a propaganda documentary or inane see-my-famous-daddy-doing-famous-things or mean-spirited father-dearest film. This is a sensitive, truthful, insightful film. One about a man who stood at the center of a confrontational movement as it spearheaded a political assault on injustice in America. About a man who defended those fighting racism and those fighting against a nasty war, American Indians and American criminals and those desperate for some form of justice. One about a man who took on the political system that he felt was fundamentally corrupt. It was not perfect, but he certainly did some good. Next month William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe will premiere in select cities. Go. Discover or rediscover the man, collect insights about the community he was a vital part of, and then think how America needs to change today.
You can email Stewart at SNusbaumer@gmail.com.