By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 7, 2009)
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe is a sometimes stirring, sometimes confounding, yet ultimately moving portrait of the iconoclastic and controversial defense lawyer who was sort of the Zelig of the radical Left throughout most of the 1970s. Somehow, he became the key legal champion for the Chicago 7, The Black Panther Party, anti-war activist Father Daniel Berrigan, the American Indian Movement and the ill-fated inmates who initiated the Attica prison riots.
However, beginning sometime in the 1980s (for reasons known only to himself, or perhaps just merely in keeping with the inherently contrarian nature of a defense lawyer) he slowly but surely turned to The Dark Side (at least in the opinion, and to the chagrin, of many of his professional cohorts and former “co-conspirators”). He began taking on high-profile cases involving clients who were decidedly less sexy to the dedicated followers of fashionable radical chic.
These clients included accused terrorists (including the chief planner of the first World Trade Center attack and the man accused of murdering Rabbi Kahane), mobsters (John Gotti and associates), notorious murderers (L.I. Railroad killer Colin Ferguson) and alleged rapists (the Central Park jogger assault case)-to name a few.
The filmmakers may have more personal reasons to be stymied by this mass of contradictions, and may be best qualified to take a stab at analysis-because after all, he was their dad. Emily and Sarah Kunstler were precocious film makers from an early age; they were in a position to capture a wealth of candid home movie moments of a man who spent a good deal of his professional life playing up to the news cameras. This footage is interwoven in such a way to greatly humanize a man who had a larger-than-life public persona,
To their credit, the film makers don’t sugarcoat that they were actually quite puzzled and horrified by some of their father’s professional choices (not to mention that some of those choices precipitated some all-too-real death threats against the family).
Whether one agrees or disagrees with Kunstler’s eventual decision to seemingly pull any defendant’s name out of the hat and give it his all, regardless of the possible political perceptions, the ultimate takeaway you get from the film is the same one his daughters movingly acknowledge in the denouement-there’s never anything wrong with making a stand against social injustice, even if you’re the only one who perceives it.
This point is brought home when Emily and Sarah remind us that the young African Americans originally brought to trial in the 1989 Central Park jogger case, roundly vilified in the media and vigorously defended by their father, were exonerated in 2002, when DNA linked a murderer to the rape. And so it goes.