[9 December 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Dad’s clients gave us nightmares,” narrates Emily Kunstler. “He told us that everyone deserves a lawyer, but sometimes we didn’t understand why that lawyer had to be our father.” Speaking for herself and sister/co-director Sarah, Emily here lays out the conundrum embodied by William Kunstler. Dynamic, charismatic, and apparently infinitely passionate, he was also drawn to controversy and celebrity, taking cases that made headlines. But the hubbub that seemed to buoy him made his daughters worry—for their safety but also for their father’s moral bearings.
Sarah and Emily try to sort through this relationship in William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe. Structured as their quest to understand their father’s choices, how he came to his beliefs and whether he lost sight of them, the documentary also evokes an era when systems might be challenged and even changed. A one-time liberal lawyer who was “radicalized” during his defense of the Chicago 8 in 1968, Kunstler took on a variety of clients, from the doomed inmates at Attica to the American Indian Movement representatives who occupied Wounded Knee, from John Gotti to Yusuf Salaam, one of the 1989 Central Park Jogger defendants. Over footage of Yusuf walking from the courtroom, tall, slender, his fade now dated, Emily remembers, “The defendants were not that much older than me or Sarah, but it felt like worlds away.” That distance was exacerbated by the many public condemnations of the “Wolf Pack.” “Everybody hates those kids,” says attorney Ron Kuby. “I don’t want to understand him, I want him punished,” Ed Koch piles on.
This case is a kind of tipping point in the documentary, for Kunstler’s “obsession” with Salaam would prove worthy, at least in terms of justice. In fact, the kids convicted of rape that year were later proved innocent, and the legal system, so entangled with media and public hysteria, was exposed as wrongful. “I was very recognizable,” Salaam says now, “I was always on trial.” Emily frames the issue in explicitly personal terms: “I realized it was never about justice for dad,” she says, “He saw a kid who was convicted by the community and by his daughters.” Her father, she sees now, was instructing her every day of her life.
Like an essay designed to show what they’ve learned, the daughters’ film rehearses the most famous cases as lessons. When her father told her, as he did more than once, that “all white people are racist,” Emily concludes, “He meant that we are blind to the depth of our own prejudice and that as long as there is prejudice, there can never be any such thing as a fair trial.” This sobering premise shaped Kunstler’s career through various turns, beginning with the case that “radicalized” him, as Emily puts it. It was 1969, and Kunstler was 50 years old when he agreed to defend the Chicago Eight, accused of inciting a riot at the Democratic National Convention. With co-counsel Len Weinglass, Kunstler found in this “trial without rules” a new way to conceive the courtroom. As Judge Julius Hoffman’s day-to-day conflicts with defendants escalated—to the point that Bobby Seale was famously bound and gagged in the courtroom—Kunstler “would grow his hair long, experiment with drugs, and be sentenced to four years in prison for contempt of court,” Emily recalls.
The ground for Kunstler’s change had been laid before, even when he seemed a more conventional figure. After a stint in the Army and law school on the GI Bill, he was a member of the ACLU in New York City when he was called to defend Freedom Riders in Mississippi. Julian Bond remembers, Kunstler “gloried in appearing in these courtrooms. He saw it as a real challenge and leapt to the challenge.” He was also, Emily says, moved by the sight of the protestors taking risks, young men sitting at a lunch counters in a Jackson bus station, knowing they might be arrested or abused. She says, “My father told me he learned an important lesson that day, that all the talking in the world meant nothing. Only actions have meaning.”
The actions he took going forward included defending Daniel Berrigan in 1968, when he and eight other activists broke into a draft board in Catonsville, Maryland and burned the draft cards of young men about to be sent to Vietnam. The protest and the trial that followed, Emily narrates, “taught dad that a courtroom could be used for a moral purpose and to believe in a power greater than the law.” Further education resulted from the Chicago Eight Conspiracy trial (during which Fred Hampton was murdered by the Chicago police), as well as Kunstler’s efforts to negotiate with the doomed inmates at Attica in 1971. That this episode turned out so badly—at least 39 people were killed, including guards and inmates—troubled Kunstler, who saw in it the predictable consequences of racism, the fundamental unfairness of a legal and penal system that regarded whole populations as inferior and expendable. “To this day,” Emily notes as she and Sarah visit the memorial to fallen officers at the prison site, “There is no mention of the 32 prisoners who lost their lives.”
Crushed by this outcome, Kunstler was somewhat healed by his experience at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Called in to defend Russell Means and Dennis Banks, Kunstler urged celebrities like Harry Belafonte and Marlon Brando to support the defendants publicly, then argued successfully that the FBI suppressed evidence, among other things. “Wounded Knee helped make him whole again,” Emily asserts, even as her film turns to the cases that made her doubt her father’s sanity, including his defense of Larry Davis, who killed six policemen in the Bronx, and El Sayyid Nosair, who murdered controversial Rabbi Meir Kahane the Jewish Defense League founder Rabbi Meir Kahane.
While Kunstler’s daughters (and friends and colleagues, the film implies by selected interviews) could accept and even understand most of his “causes,” they were less sanguine when he defended Nosair. “I remember hearing my parents argue behind closed doors,” says Emily, before cutting to her mother, Margaret Ratner Kunstler, for confirmation: this case brought death threats and risk to the family. That family is only sparsely represented here, in snapshots and home movies showing the girls with dad, the girls with a dog. Mostly, the film presents the sisters’ struggles with their dad’s seeming loss of principle, premised on his loss of faith in the legal system, and his use of courtrooms as dramatic stages to “stand up” to oppression. Their emotional complications remain unresolved, which makes the film more compellingly messy than the usual biography.