William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

William Kunstler was a lawyer and civil rights activist who was perhaps most famous for his defence of the Chicago 7, and his involvement in the Attica prison riots in the early 1970s. His daughters, Emily and Sarah Kunstler, have made a superb, moving documentary about the life and work of their father that is both a loving portrait and a surprisingly critical, almost objective account of his life and work, and especially of the cases he undertook towards the end of his life—and this is where the film opens.

Emily, who narrates the film, expresses her distaste at her father’s decision to defend what she and her sister saw as “bad people”: murderers, rapists, etc. In the late-’80s and early ’90s, Kunstler defended Mafia boss John Gotti and the five black youths accused of pack rape in the Central Park Jogger case.

At the time of his death in 1995, Kunstler was defending two suspects in the World Trade Center bombings of 1993: Omar Abdel-Raman and El-Sayyid Nosair—the latter of whom Kunstler had successfully defended for the 1990 assassination of Jewish religious figure and right-wing Israeli politician Rabbi Meir Kahane, a crime to which Nosair would later plead guilty.

But Kunstler wasn’t always a defender of those who had—in the eyes of the media and the public at least—obviously done wrong; in fact, he initially became famous for basically the exact opposite, having rose to prominence as a radical figure of the left in the ’60s. Sarah and Emily “weren’t around to see [their] father’s glory days,” as Emily puts it: Sarah was born in 1976, when her father was 57, and Emily came along two years later—so their only image of their father’s time in the spotlight is just as mediated as anyone else’s.

Kunstler’s beginnings were far less fractious than the polarising figure who waded into heated debate at the height of the counterculture might indicate: after serving a tour of duty in the Pacific theatre during World War II for which he was a decorated soldier, he settled into a mild suburban lifestyle in Westchester, NY with his first wife and two children. For a time, he was content with a small-town legal practice, but then came the civil rights movement, which captured his full attention.

Under the auspices of the ACLU, of which he was director from 1964–1972, Kunstler defended the “Freedom Riders” in Mississippi, and worked for a time in the South. He later moved to Chicago where he became embroiled in the ins-and-outs of the Black Panther party and the 1968 conspiracy trial; later still, Kunstler was a defence lawyer for various of the prisoners accused of inciting a riot at Attica in 1971.

He was also involved in the American Indian movement which culminated in a (fortunately bloodless) standoff at Wounded Knee in the mid-’70s. Kunstler met his second wife in the mid-’70s and settled once again into family life, only this time he was working out of the basement of a New York brownstone defending people whom many saw as indefensible.

Emily and Sarah Kunstler’s film about their father is slickly-made and thankfully free of excessively sentimental attachment to its subject, though its soundtrack—which utilises two tracks (“Quiet” & “They Move on Tracks of Never-Ending Light”) by the post-rock band This Will Destroy You—renders onerous a number of summary/overview segments.

Interviews with journalists, professors, lawyers and friends and contemporaries of Kunstler’s make up the bulk of the film’s 85-minute running time, but the film also makes use of a reasonable amount of informative archival footage. For a documentary that could have so easily been acritical of its subject, as many of its ilk usually are—full of praise-filled sound-bite after praise-filled sound-bite and accolade upon accolade—Disturbing the Universe is refreshingly objective, and entertainingly composed to boot.