Every­one but O.J.

William Kunstler: Dis­turb­ing the Uni­verse, warts-and-all biopic, not rated, The Screen, 3 chiles

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“While other chil­dren were afraid of ghosts or mon­sters,” says Emily Kunstler, “I was afraid of the po­lice, the pres­i­dent, and the FBI.” So be­gins William Kunstler: Dis­turb­ing the Uni­verse, a doc­u­men­tary about the life of the late rad­i­cal lawyer as seen through the eyes of his two adult daugh­ters, Emily and Sarah. Though it’s a fam­ily af­fair, Dis­turb­ing the Uni­verse is far from a trib­ute piece to dear old dad. In­stead, it’s a bit­ter­sweet in­ves­ti­ga­tion by two feisty women into how their fa­ther went from be­ing a fear­less civil-rights cru­sader in the 1960s and ’70s to a pub­lic­ity-hun­gry celebrity at­tor­ney who de­fended cop killers and ter­ror­ists up un­til his death in 1995. “He told us every­one de­serves a lawyer,” Emily says in voice-over. “Why did it have to be our fa­ther?”

Us­ing home movies, archival news footage, and orig­i­nal in­ter­views with for­mer friends and clients, Kunstler’s daugh­ters piece to­gether a warts-and-all por­trait of their fa­ther, whose land­mark civil-rights cases mostly took place be­fore the girls were born in the late 1970s. Kunstler’s life is a ver­i­ta­ble kalei­do­scope of the Amer­i­can left in the 1960s

and 1970s, and the film throws a some­what un­sen­ti­men­tal gaze on that by­gone era.

Up un­til his early 40s, Kunstler, a grad­u­ate of Yale and Columbia Uni­ver­sity Law School, lived as an arm­chair lib­eral lawyer who wrote trusts and wills in Westch­ester County, New York. There were few signs that this son of a doc­tor whose black ser­vants were re­quired to use sep­a­rate bath­rooms would go on to be­come one of the most con­tro­ver­sial civil-rights lawyers of the 20th cen­tury. In 1961, how­ever, the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union tapped Kunstler to be part of the team rep­re­sent­ing the Free­dom Rid­ers in Mis­sis­sippi, and his life was for­ever changed. Ar­gu­ing in front of the big­oted Deep South judges of that era, he found mean­ing, men­ace, and ad­ven­ture.

Call it a midlife cri­sis, but Kunstler was al­ready ap­proach­ing 50 when be be­came known as “the most hated lawyer in Amer­ica.” At a time in life when peo­ple be­gin to mull over re­tire­ment op­tions, Kunstler was grow­ing his hair long, ex­per­i­ment­ing with drugs, and even be­ing sen­tenced to a four-year prison term for con­tempt of court as the lead de­fense lawyer and ring­mas­ter of the three-ring cir­cus that was the Chicago Seven, a con­spir­acy trial of seven rad­i­cals ac­cused of in­cit­ing a riot at the 1968 Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion. With his hip­pie clients dressed in judges’ robes and po­lice uni­forms, Kunstler was a pi­o­neer in the use of court­room the­atrics to put the morals of gov­ern­ment and law en­force­ment on trial.

Dur­ing the 1970s, Kunstler would lead the de­fense for pris­on­ers in­volved in the At­tica prison riot and Amer­i­can In­dian ac­tivists who oc­cu­pied the town of Wounded Knee. With his new­found celebrity, Kunstler toured the coun­try, speak­ing to crowds of thou­sands — the FBI tail­ing his ev­ery move. In 1976 he mar­ried fel­low rad­i­cal lawyer Mar­garet Ratner, and Emily and Sarah were born soon there­after. But fam­ily life with a lawyer whose FBI case file ran sev­eral thou­sand pages was any­thing but easy. “Dad opened all his pack­ages in the base­ment in case they con­tained ex­plo­sives,” Emily ex­plains in the film.

Some­time in the early 1980s, Kunstler be­gan to draw the wrong lessons from his no­to­ri­ety. “Dad had be­come so used to be­ing in the spot­light. It didn’t mat­ter how he got there any­more,” Emily says. Kunstler largely aban­doned his civil-rights prac­tice in fa­vor of high-pro­file crim­i­nal-de­fense work rep­re­sent­ing clients like gang­ster John Gotti and Larry Davis, a New Yorker who shot six po­lice of­fi­cers who were raid­ing his sis­ter’s apart­ment. Kunstler claimed his client was act­ing in self-de­fense, and in 1988 Davis was ac­quit­ted on mur­der charges, the first time ever for a po­lice-shoot­ing case. But Emily said that the ver­dict left her and Sarah won­der­ing, “What was heroic about shoot­ing six po­lice­men?”

They never re­ceived an an­swer to that ques­tion. In­stead, in 1992, they would have to en­dure their win­dows be­ing shot out af­ter their dad won an ac­quit­tal for El Sayyid No­sair on charges of killing rabbi Meir Ka­hane, a con­tro­ver­sial leader of the Jewish De­fense League. The judge in the case said No­sair’s ac­quit­tal “was against the over­whelm­ing weight of ev­i­dence and was de­void of com­mon sense and logic.” No­sair was later re­tried and con­victed for Ka­hane’s mur­der as part of his in­volve­ment in a ter­ror cell. “Was he in­no­cent?” Kunstler’s daugh­ters asked. To which their fa­ther replied, “A lawyer never asks that of his client.”

Through­out Dis­turb­ing the Uni­verse, it’s clear that Kunstler’s daugh­ters are not out to in­dict their dad but to give him due dili­gence. In the late 1980s, Kunstler was de­nounced in the press for de­fend­ing Yusef Salaam, one of five men ac­cused of as­sault­ing and rap­ing the woman known as the Cen­tral Park Jog­ger. Kunstler lost the case, and Salaam spent five and a half years in prison. Yet years af­ter Kunstler’s death, Salaam would be ex­on­er­ated af­ter an­other con­victed mur­derer and rapist re­vealed that he alone was re­spon­si­ble for the at­tack. Salaam’s wrong­ful con­vic­tion makes a fit­ting end­ing to the doc­u­men­tary. The daugh­ters be­gin to re­al­ize that their dad may have had mo­tives be­yond celebrity in tak­ing on cases that would make the most hard-boiled of crim­i­nal-de­fense at­tor­neys shud­der. “It was never about in­no­cence for dad,” Emily says. “He looked at Yusef as a kid who had been con­victed in the press al­ready.”

The pre­sumed in­no­cence of youth: William Kunstler with his daugh­ters Emily and Sarah

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