William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Movie review: 'William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,' about famed lawyer

William Kunstler, right, with client Russell Means in the 1970s.
William Kunstler, right, with client Russell Means in the 1970s. (Maddy Miller)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009

William Kunstler never gave a straight answer in his life.

At least not according to the late activist lawyer's daughters Emily and Sarah Kunstler. The filmmaking sisters make that claim in their new film, "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe," a fascinating portrait that's part conventional documentary and part highly personal memoir of growing up with the man who first made his name as a wild-haired, firebrand lawyer defending Abbie Hoffman and several other codefendants in the so-called Chicago conspiracy trial. That case, in the wake of protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, garnered Kunstler a contempt-of-court citation for his mouthy theatrics.

So why should we expect a straight answer from his daughters? Early in the film, they raise the question of whether their father -- long known as a radical, but one with a kind of ideological purity -- might have at some point stopped standing for anything worth standing for. Late in life, Kunstler (who died in 1995 at age 76,) became the object of no small ridicule for taking on such notorious clients as terrorist El Sayyid Nosair, drug dealer and admitted cop killer Larry Davis and, on appeal, one of the black teenagers convicted in the infamous 1989 Central Park jogger case, in which a young woman was raped and nearly killed during what came to be known as "wilding."

Narrated by Emily Kunstler, the film includes such telling reminisces as this: "His clients gave us nightmares."

Even lawyer Alan Dershowitz, whose clients have included accused wife-murderer Claus von Bulow, all but accuses Kunstler of liberal hypocrisy by hiring himself out to what amounted to thugs and mobsters. (Which may be the pot calling the kettle black, but never mind.)

Kunstler's career can't be summarized neatly. In his heyday, he took civil rights cases. He tried to negotiate a peaceful end to the Attica prison stand-off, which ended in massive bloodshed when New York state police shot the prisoners who had taken guards hostage in an attempt to gain better living conditions. And he helped win the acquittal of Native American activists who had taken over the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee. He was a hero to the left and a champion of the oppressed.

By the time Emily (born in 1978) and Sarah (born in 1976) were kids, their father had become better known for representing accused Mafia don John Gotti and, in a mock trial staged for Fox TV's "The Reporters," a cat named Tyrone. He had become a joke.

But inside that tortuous career path, the filmmakers do ultimately find a spine of sorts.

In 1989 recordings of Kunstler arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court that even flag burning is a kind of protected speech, we hear him make the point that our statutes are there not to protect the right to say things we like, but to protect the right to say things we hate.

That idea comes up again toward the end of the film, when it is revealed that Kunstler's Central Park jogger client, Yusef Salaam (whom Emily and Sarah as girls had implored their father not to take as a client), was, in fact, exonerated in 2002 after serving several years of his sentence.

The film's point is clear. And for those looking for a straight answer, it's this: The bravest lawyer isn't the one who takes on the clients that allow him to feel good about himself. It's the one who takes on the clients that give us nightmares.

*** Unrated. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains crude language, drug references and bloody crime scene photos and footage. 90 minutes.

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