Everyone but O.J.
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, warts-and-all biopic, not rated, The Screen, 3 chiles
“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