Like Doug Block's 51 Birch Street, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe shows media-savvy children reckoning with the conflict between their childhood worship of their father, and their revised adult understanding of his behavior. Neither vilifying nor glorifying him, the daughters of the late civil-rights lawyer William Kunstler have produced a clear-eyed biopic that weighs the questionable aspects of his past against his heroic achievements. Kunstler was the radical/activist lawyer of the 60s and 70s, known not only for having taken on every milestone case in civil, native American, and prisoners' rights movements, but equally for his unruly hair, wrinkled suits and obstinate attitude towards judges. His conduct in the Chicago Seven trial (he once told a judge, "I feel so utterly ashamed to be an American lawyer in this court") changed and theatricalized the American justice system.
The case had already been a three-ring circus (judge Julius Hoffman had Black Panther leader Bobby Seale gagged and bound), but, as the Kunstler daughters show us through newspaper articles and comic animated courtroom sketches, Kunstler turned the trial into first-rate commedia dell'arte. Defendants wore costumes (judge's robes and police uniforms) while Kunstler invited poets, musicians and others, including the irascible Allen Ginsberg to testify, and entertain. A jury member interviewed in the film recalls the shock of Kunstler's courtroom conduct, having at the time written in her diary: “He sure wears some flashy ties… he has been forgetting to comb his hair lately." While effecting a general loosening of American courtroom propriety (giving way to hundreds of television dramas and perhaps even Jury Duty) the Chicago Seven trial also gave Kunstler a reputation for being an outspoken radical.
As Kunstler's reputation began to precede, him the film shows how later in his career, his love of attention overtook his interest in justice. His daughters shamefacedly recall their father’s decisions, in the 80s and 90s, to defend much-loathed public figures like Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, and the Gambino family. Emily observes, "Dad had gotten so used to being in th espotlight it didn't seem to matter how he got there anymore." In an interview, even the loud-mouth talk-show host Phil Donahue admits he often only featured Kunstler on his show because "he drew a crowd… A lot of times [Kunstler's] motivation was fame.” On her father’s decision to defend the mass murderer Colin Ferguson, Emily (a teen at the time) concedes, "Our father had completely lost his mind… I had always defended my father to the kids at school, but this time I couldn't find the words."
Nevertheless, in the spirit of a fair trial, the Kunstler daughters honor their father with a proper defense. (Hearteningly, he received a posthumous vindication when one of his most hated clients, Yusef Salaam, the accused "central park jogger" rapist, was proven innocent in 2002.) Weaving a balanced story, the daughters of this controversial lawyer have kept Kunstler's record open for the public to decide.
Opens November 13