William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe 4/12/10
This last week Red River Theatres in Concord showed the documentary William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe. I found the movie amazingly compelling. Made by Kunstler’s daughters, Emily and Sarah, the movie evokes the late 60’s-early 70’s period better than any movie I have seen in a very long time.
The movie also demonstrates the scope of Kunstler’s legal career. From the early civil rights movement to the Chicago 7 trial, to Attica, Wounded Knee and more recent cases, the movie brilliantly covers the history. It shows how Bill Kunstler went from being a suburban liberal to the radical lawyer he became.
Having read Kunstler’s autobiography, it is surprising how much was still left out. The list of Bill’s clients was like living history. MLK, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Lenny Bruce, Adam Clayton Powell: and these are some of the clients the movie pretty much passed on.
The Chicago trial, Attica, and Wounded Knee did get a lot of play in the movie. The sequences about Attica and Wounded Knee were particularly powerful. The utter senselessness of the police attack on the prisoners and the captive guards was driven home by former police guard Michael Smith.
The Wounded Knee parts conveyed how the trial judge, who appeared to have been written off by the defendants and their lawyers, became outraged at government misconduct. It looked like the defense obtained verdicts they never expected.
Later in Kunstler’s career, he did less travelling around and he focused on criminal defense work in New York City. He represented, often successfully, some of the most unpopular defendants imaginable, including El Sayyid Nossair (accused of the murder of Meir Kahane), John Gotti, and Yussef Salaam of the Central Park jogger case.
His daughters and others in the movie raise questions about why he chose these clients. No great answers are provided. He paid a huge price and his popularity among liberals took a nosedive. It did seem like he always loved the limelight and these cases guaranteed notoriety.
Bill’s opposition to racism struck me as the central theme in his life. He is on an honored short list of white Americans who gave their all to battling racism during their lives. This was true even from the early days of his legal career. Fittingly the movie ends with Bill’s heroic and despised representation of Yussef Salaam. Bill totally stood behind Salaam. Long after Bill died in 2002, Salaam’s conviction was overturned. Bill was vindicated on a case where he had stood alone.
Talking to some young attorney friends after the movie, I was struck by how little young people know of the history of that period. America is like an amnesia-creating machine. The events of the late 60’s-early 70’s might as well be ancient history. Sadly, it has been successfully erased.
While probably no movie can do justice to that period, this is a good one. Go see it – and take your kids along.