Lawyer William Kunstler was one of the most controversial figures of the second half of the twentieth century. Depending on your own political opinions he was either an outspoken revolutionary with an anti-American agenda or a radical supporter of the rights of the underclass and the downtrodden in the truest American tradition. There was no cause too unpopular, no defendant too notorious or even too likely guilty to deserve the best possible legal representation. There was no course of action off limits when it came to providing that representation. Legality must never be confused with justice. When a legal system is stacked against a defendant because of his race or his politics or his economic status, it is the legal system that must be put on trial. And put it on trial he did.
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, a documentary produced and directed by his daughters Emily and Sarah, attempts to describe his career and put it in some kind of historical perspective. while investigating the effects of living with such a polarizing figure. What does it mean to be the daughter of a man vilified for defending one of the supposed killers of the Central Park jogger? What does it mean to come home from school one day to find a crowd of sign wielding protesters from the Jewish Defense League in front of your house screaming insults and threats at your father? What does it mean to hear the stories of your father's fighting for Freedom Riders in the South, Indians at Wounded Knee, and convicts holding hostages at Attica?
It certainly wasn't easy to be the daughters of such a man. There is a clip in the film from a local New York television talk show in which the two young girls appear with their father and Emily asks him why he felt he had to take one of his more unpopular cases. His answer was the typical anodyne that everyone deserved a defense, an answer the girls didn't find particularly satisfying. As they say at the beginning of the film, they understood that everyone deserved a defense, but when they discovered that their father was defending "bad people," they had to ask why it was their father had to be the one providing it. Still, as they got older, they seemed more able to recognize and respect the significant contributions of their father.
The film uses archival footage to illustrate all of Kunstler's famous cases. There is the trial of the Chicago Seven when he was eventually sentenced to four years in prison for contempt of court, which was eventually overturned. This trial, and the court's treatment of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale is characterized as the central radicalizing event in Kunstler's life. It clearly demonstrated what he saw as the systemic prejudices in America and the American justice system. Prejudices he only saw reinforced in the siege at Wounded Knee and the Attica uprising.