Defending society's nightmares
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009
William Kunstler never gave a straight answer in his life.
At least not according to the late activist lawyer's daughters Emily
and Sarah Kunstler. The filmmaking sisters make that claim in their
new film, "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe," a fascinating
portrait that's part conventional documentary and part highly
personal memoir of growing up with the man who first made his name as
a wild-haired, firebrand lawyer defending Abbie Hoffman and several
other codefendants in the so-called Chicago conspiracy trial. That
case, in the wake of protests during the 1968 Democratic National
Convention, garnered Kunstler a contempt-of-court citation for his
So why should we expect a straight answer from his daughters? Early
in the film, they raise the question of whether their father -- long
known as a radical, but one with a kind of ideological purity --
might have at some point stopped standing for anything worth standing
for. Late in life, Kunstler (who died in 1995 at age 76,) became the
object of no small ridicule for taking on such notorious clients as
terrorist El Sayyid Nosair, drug dealer and admitted cop killer Larry
Davis and, on appeal, one of the black teenagers convicted in the
infamous 1989 Central Park jogger case, in which a young woman was
raped and nearly killed during what came to be known as "wilding."
Narrated by Emily Kunstler, the film includes such telling reminisces
as this: "His clients gave us nightmares."
Even lawyer Alan Dershowitz, whose clients have included accused
wife-murderer Claus von Bulow, all but accuses Kunstler of liberal
hypocrisy by hiring himself out to what amounted to thugs and
mobsters. (Which may be the pot calling the kettle black, but never mind.)
Kunstler's career can't be summarized neatly. In his heyday, he took
civil rights cases. He tried to negotiate a peaceful end to the
Attica prison stand-off, which ended in massive bloodshed when New
York state police shot the prisoners who had taken guards hostage in
an attempt to gain better living conditions. And he helped win the
acquittal of Native American activists who had taken over the South
Dakota town of Wounded Knee. He was a hero to the left and a champion
of the oppressed.
By the time Emily (born in 1978) and Sarah (born in 1976) were kids,
their father had become better known for representing accused Mafia
don John Gotti and, in a mock trial staged for Fox TV's "The
Reporters," a cat named Tyrone. He had become a joke.
But inside that tortuous career path, the filmmakers do ultimately
find a spine of sorts.
In 1989 recordings of Kunstler arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court
that even flag burning is a kind of protected speech, we hear him
make the point that our statutes are there not to protect the right
to say things we like, but to protect the right to say things we hate.
That idea comes up again toward the end of the film, when it is
revealed that Kunstler's Central Park jogger client, Yusef Salaam
(whom Emily and Sarah as girls had implored their father not to take
as a client), was, in fact, exonerated in 2002 after serving several
years of his sentence.
The film's point is clear. And for those looking for a straight
answer, it's this: The bravest lawyer isn't the one who takes on the
clients that allow him to feel good about himself. It's the one who
takes on the clients that give us nightmares.
*** Unrated. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains crude language,
drug references and bloody crime scene photos and footage. 90 minutes.