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.
Audio clips of his arguments before the Supreme Court in defense of Flag burning detail his faith in the necessity of freedom of speech even when that speech is obnoxious and unpopular. The first amendment, he argues, is not necessary for speech we all agree with. It is the right to say the things we don't agree with that needs to be guaranteed. It is a traditional defense of free speech, and it is a defense the court eventually agreed with.
The documentary includes a substantial material from the Kunstler family's collection of home movies and tape recordings, which fill out the sketch of his public face with some insight into private man. There is some reference to his first marriage, his service in the Pacific and his early career, but the central focus of the documentary is his fight for the rights of the underdog. This is symbolized in an anecdote about Michelangelo's statue of David that he oft repeated. The statue, he was told by on old man nearby when he first saw it in Italy, shows David at the moment he has to decide whether to fight against tyranny or turn tail and give up. David's decision is one we all have to make: stand up to injustice or become part of the problem. It is a decision that William Kunstler found himself making very often in his life.
He saw a government out of control; a government denying its citizens their rights and even killing them. J. Edgar Hoover, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Judge Julius Hoffman were agents of repression and it was his duty to fight against them in any way he could. Civil disobedience, guerilla theater, resistance passive and perhaps not so passive: all options had to be on the table when fighting against an overwhelming tyrannical force. It is ironic that the overreaching governmental threat he so feared from the left, has today morphed into fear from the right. The pictures of the protesting activists of the sixties and seventies seem not so different from the tea party protesters today.
The DVD's bonus features include selections from Kunstler's speeches at SUNY Buffalo and Caroline's Comedy Club in New York in 1995, added footage from the Attica siege and more of the Kunstler home movies. There is also an interview of the filmmakers by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez from Democracy Now.