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william Kunstler, right, during the riots at Attica Prison (Photo: Arthouse Films)

Produced & Directed by Emily Kunstler & Sarah Kunstler
Written by Sarah Kunstler
Released by Arthouse Films
USA. 85 min. Not Rated   

William Kunstler: Disturbing The Universe, a fond introduction to the activist lawyer by his daughters, may be more informative for their generation given that it covers little new ground.

Directors/producers Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler open the film with a montage of photographs and home movies from growing up in ’70's/’80’s bohemian New York City. They do not provide a chronological biography of their father, with nothing about his parents, childhood, or adolescence, only his friends retelling army anecdotes. 

More revealing is how their father initially followed the familiar path of returning World War II veterans, going to law school on the G. I. Bill (as a classmate of Roy Cohn, for whom he did some personal legal work), marrying, and raising his first family in the suburbs. Its like a before sequence to see him in home movies with short hair grilling on the barbecue and enjoying summer afternoons in his Westchester backyard, like many 1950s suburban dads. There is a very brief, very guarded interview about this period of his life with one of the directors older half-sisters (she too has had a career as a public interest lawyer, but for the government). 

The after comes with the Freedom Rides of 1961 when Kunstler answered a call for lawyers to defend those who were defying Southern Jim Crowe laws in buses and restaurants. From then on, his daughters use his extensive FBI file as a primary source of information on his activities. Once he leaves his suburban life, the greatest hits of 1960s and 1970s protests go by in his many televised press conferences and in interviews with his co-counsels and clients, including the 1968 anti-war protesters at Columbia University, where he met his younger, second wife, and activist Father Daniel Berrigan, also seen burning Selective Service draft files in Maryland. This period of his life climaxed in the infamous trial that followed the protests at the Democratic National Convention, detailed in Brett Morgens Chicago 10 and recalled here by Bobby Seale and a juror. 

Bringing with him public attention, he was pulled into mediation efforts at Attica Prison in 1971 and with the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee in 1973, events that further radicalized his views of the legal system. The prison uprising and its violent suppression are covered in detail, useful for those who only know about it from Al Pacinos rants against the police in Sidney Lumets Dog Day Afternoon

The two daughters (Emily narrates) were teenagers when Kunstler died in 1995, by which time they were embarrassed that he was known more as a criminal lawyer defending tabloid targets, including a rapist, cop killer, Mafioso, terrorist, and political assassin. They are relieved that many of those clients were found to be actually innocent, but they seem either naïve or influenced by the threats against their family than in believing in the principle that even the most notorious clients have a right to the best defense and a fair trial.

Adding a fresh take on the usual overview of the period, Kunstler’s less famous clients are proud he took on their causes—the African-American couple he helped early on to move into a restricted apartment complex in his Westchester neighborhood (they're still the only black family there); the Johnson in Texas v. Johnson, the flag-burning-as-protected-speech case that was the lawyer’s only U.S. Supreme Court argument (and victory); and the Central Park rapist who was exonerated after Kunstler’s death.

In the growing genre of insightful filmmakers making biographies of their families—from the famous (CC Goldwater on Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater) to the infamous (Malte Ludins 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Him on a Nazi leader) to the personal (Doug Blocks 51 Birch Street and Morgan Dewss Must Read After My Death)—this tribute, funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, will just fit in fine among PBS retrospectives for nostalgic boomers. Nora Lee Mandel
November 13, 2009



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