G. Allen Johnson
November 19, 2009
To the world, William Kunstler was either a hero or a villain, a
lawyer who represented some of the most notorious defendants in
America - the Chicago Eight, the American Indian Movement at Wounded
Knee, the Attica prison rioters and the Central Park jogger rape suspects.
To his two youngest daughters, Emily and Sarah Kunstler, he was an
enigma. He was, in a sense, the establishment they were rebelling
against - an always busy father who took on increasingly bizarre and
controversial defendants, such as the first World Trade Center bomber.
And then he was gone, dead of heart failure at 76, when Emily and
Sarah were teenagers. To try to understand their father, they have
made a documentary, "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe."
"We didn't have the opportunity to have an adult relationship with
him," Emily said. "This helped get as close to that as we could get.
It really helped rewind the tape and get the answers we were looking for."
Speaking by phone from Brooklyn, the sisters said they loved their
father and had a normal relationship that teenage daughters have,
which would involve some tension and generational misunderstanding.
But most don't have this experience:
"When Sarah and I were arrested for the first time at a protest, he
stormed into the police precinct to try and get us out," Emily
recalled. "It was an embarrassing experience for us, because here we
were, really feeling independent, and having parents come down and
try and get special favors for you is quite embarrassing. He wanted
to represent us, but we refused."
"Disturbing the Universe" is packed with old footage, photographs and
current interviews with a large cross section of people, including
lawyer Alan Dershowitz, many of Kunstler's critics and several of his
appreciative clients. It's skillfully made, and that's no accident:
Sarah and Emily earlier made "Tulia, Texas," about a drug bust that
netted 46 people, most of them innocent, based on racial profiling.
Stemming from the work at the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial
Justice, the 27-minute film helped spur a series of articles by New
York Times columnist Bob Herbert and will soon be a feature film.
Seems the apples don't fall far from the tree.
"I'm a lawyer now as well," Sarah said, "and Emily and I have come to
feel strongly that everyone deserves a lawyer, that we have to be
really careful in this country when people are set up as demons or enemies."
Opens Friday at Bay Area theaters.
G. Allen Johnson, email@example.com