"My sister and I weren't around for our father's glory days," Emily Kunstler says in William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, a new documentary on the controversial career of the rabble-rousing, radical lawyer of the 1960s and '70s. Emily and her sister Sarah, both born in the 1970s, have explored their father's legacy by directing a film with riveting archival footage and numerous interviews.
The film shows how Kunstler's upstate New York suburban life changed in the 1960s after he traveled to the South to participate in the civil rights movement and began defending the Freedom Riders. He had found his calling—fighting injustice. Later he represented Vietnam War protesters; met his second wife, Margaret Ratner (Emily and Sarah's mother); and defended the "Chicago Eight" against charges of conspiring to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The film includes startling sketches from that 1969 trial, showing Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, of Oakland, bound and gagged in the courtroom. (Seale was later severed from the case.) The documentary also tells how Kunstler negotiated on behalf of inmates at New York's Attica State prison in 1971 after they rioted in protest of brutally inhumane conditions and treatment at the facility, and two years later helped end the 71-day standoff between the government and Native Americans at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
The filmmakers also reveal how their father's work of the 1980s and '90s gave them nightmares. "We realized he was defending bad people," says Emily. "People accused of rape, terrorism, organized crime, and cop shooting." Their mother recounts how she didn't want her husband representing El Sayyid Nosair (accused of killing Rabbi Meir Kahane, a militant rightwing Jewish leader) because she thought it put the girls in danger.
The directors interview Kunstler's detractors and supporters alike, from Alan Dershowitz to Dennis Banks, founder of the American Indian Movement. The film, opening in theaters in November, presents the many sides of a complex man who was loved and despised for his work by the time of his death in 1995.
[The above article was first published as "Kunstler Documentary Paints Complex Portrait" in the October 2009 issue of California Lawyer]
Chuleenan Svetvilas is a writer, editor, and critic based in Oakland, California. Her writings on film has appeared in Dox, Documentary, and Release Print magazines. She is the Managing Editor of California Lawyer.