Dec. 11, 2009
By Steven Rea
In the '60s and early '70S, attorney William Kunstler seemed to be
everywhere that mattered: on the bus with Mississippi Freedom Riders;
defending the Chicago Eight in the aftermath of bloody riots at the
1968 Democratic Convention; representing prisoners who took over
Attica; negotiating a truce between American Indian radicals and the
government at Wounded Knee. Famous for his long hair and loquacious
summaries, Kunstler was a counterculture hero.
The clients he chose to defend in the late '70s and '80s, however,
turned him from hero to pariah in many people's eyes: high-profile
cases where he stood alongside accused cop-killers, gang rapists,
terrorists, and mobsters. It was during this period, when Kunstler
worked from his Greenwich Village townhouse, that his two daughters
from his second marriage - Sarah and Emily, then in their teens - had
to deal with the fallout from their father's controversial work:
ridicule at school, protesters on their front stoop.
How could he defend these monsters, they wanted to know. Why was he
putting himself, and his family, at risk?
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe finds the sisters still
struggling with those questions. The sibling filmmakers, using a
wealth of archival footage, news clips, home movies, and interviews,
offer a portrait of a passionate liberal and maverick lawyer who
bought into his own myth, to the detriment of his career and the
dismay of his daughters. Kunstler died in 1995.
Like the documentaries My Architect (about Louis Kahn, by his son)
and The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack (about Ramblin' Jack Elliott, by his
daughter), William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe offers a deeply
personal view of a larger-than-life figure. It's a view filtered
through a prism of memory and emotion, but one well worth investigating.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org