San Diego Jewish Film Festival preview: ‘William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe’
By Paul Greenberg
LA JOLLA, California– The documentary film, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, about the life and times of the famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) Jewish attorney who is best-known for trying to help the oppressed in American society through the legal system, as well as defending rapists, terrorists, and assassins later in his career, should be re-titled, albeit lengthily: William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe and (Sometimes) Particularly Disturbing Two Of His Younger Daughters During His New York Criminal Defense Years.
The filmmakers are two of Kunstler’s daughters from his second and final marriage: Emily (born in 1978), who narrates, and Sarah (born in 1976), who weren’t around during his civil rights advocacy heyday but were nevertheless deeply and negatively affected and also perplexed by some of his later criminal defense cases.
This fast-paced film mixes intimate home movies and archival footage with interviews with an assortment of prominent attorneys, wives, other daughters, colleagues, people he defended, and a juror in one of his cases, to provide a complex portrait of a man deeply immersed in defending and helping the oppressed and some quite unpopular figures who, at the same time, was almost addicted to grabbing the spotlight.
The film devotes most of its time to focusing on Kunstler’s biggest causes and cases that are divided between his pre-1976 civil rights years and his post-1976 New York criminal defense years:
— 1960’s defense of the Freedom Riders
— defense of Vietnam War protesters in 1969 who burned draft files
— defense of the Chicago Seven, who were charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention
— serving in September 1971 as negotiator for the prisoners of Attica who took nine guards hostage to pressure authorities to address a list of practical demands involving living conditions, but which ended tragically due in part to Kunstler’s own miscalculations when police moved in and killed all guard hostages and 32 inmates
— defending leaders of the American Indian Movement who, along with the Oglala Sioux, began occupying Wounded Knee, South Dakota on February 1973 for 71 days to force the federal government to honor long-standing Native American treaties and whose charges of illegal occupation were dismissed after a trial by a judge because of egregious governmental misconduct
–representing accused cop shooter Larry Davis, who wounded six cops but was acquitted of all charges based on self-defense
–representing El-Sayyid Nosair, a Palestinian who was accused of shooting at point-blank range and killing Rabbi Meir Kahane, an extremist who advocated violence against Arabs, but was acquitted because of lack of proof that he was indeed the shooter
–representing Joey Johnson before the United States Supreme Court, who was charged with the crime of flag burning at the Republican National Convention in 1984 , but was acquitted because the court ruled that flag burning was expressive conduct protected by the Constitution
— representing Yusef Salaam, one of the rapists charged in the Central Park Jogging Case who, along with all other defendants in the case, had their guilty verdicts set aside many years later.
Many of Kunstler’s post-1976 cases in the film were accompanied by Emily’s complaints that they (the sisters) just didn’t understand why their dad was taking such cases and justifiable fear for her and Sarah’s safety.
Emily: “I thought what he was doing was important and dangerous. All his cases were causes, we just couldn’t always figure out what he was fighting for. He told us everyone deserves an attorney, but sometimes we didn’t understand why that lawyer had to be our father. Dad’s clients gave us nightmares. When his mind was made up, no one could stop our father.”
After Kunstler took the Nosair case he was considered by some Jews to be a traitor to his own people and Emily and Sarah lived in constant fear. “We received bullets in the mail and dad opened all packages in the basement in case of explosives. There were staged daily protests outside our home, our front windows were shot out with red paintballs, and dad was called a self-hating Jew. My mom wouldn’t let us outside. Why was I being punished for something I didn’t do?”
Attorney Kunstler also defended a house cat against a charge of crimes against humanity in a mock trial on television. Lamented Emily: “It was official, Sarah and I agreed. Our father had completely lost his mind.”
Tellingly, both Emily and Sarah express in the film that they didn’t want to be lawyers.
Disturbing the Universe also touches on the pre-attorney life that shaped Kunstler’s later liberal views, including his life of privilege in New York where the family’s black maids ate meals in the kitchen and used separate bathrooms, and his uneasiness in not speaking out when he was in the Army after realizing there were segregated living quarters and blacks had to perform menial jobs in the service of white soldiers.
I found the civil rights cases that were illuminated to be most intriguing, and the archival footage of the shootings at Attica to be quite haunting and extremely disturbing. This must-see film will probably give the public as well as the filmmakers a better understanding of the most perplexing William Kunstler.
As one person in the film so succinctly put it: “You either loved him or hated him. There is nothing in between.” There is also no denying that William Kunstler significantly changed the legal landscape in America forever, and probably for the better.
William L. Kunstler was born on July 7th, 1919, in New York, New York, and died on September 4th, 1995 in New York City.
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe will be showing at the UltraStar La Costa on Sunday, February 14, at 4:00 p.m. as part of the 20th Annual San Diego Jewish Film Festival that is sponsored by The Mizel Family Foundation.
Paul Greenberg is a freelance writer based in San Diego.