Defending William Kunstler’s Universe

Yesterday was a five-screening gauntlet through some of the best films showing in and around Park City, UT during the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. I’ll have much more to say in the coming weeks (at UGO) on Brooklyn’s Finest, Cold Souls, Paper Heart and Slammin’ Salmon (which was actually a Slamdance flick). In the here and now however, I find myself sitting in a little ice cream parlor on Main Street, mooching some free Internet and positively bursting with things to say about the fabulous documentary, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe.

Mr. Kunstler was a lot of things to a lot of different people. In the beginning, he was a lawyer living a sleepy suburban life with his wife and kid in Westchester, NY. Little did he know then the long road that he would walk, only to end up with a second wife and two new daughters – Emily and Sarah, the doc’s architects – just a few miles south in lower Manhattan, a short train ride away from where it all started.

Disturbing the Universe offers a fairly detailed examination of Kunstler’s career. Different viewers will walk in armed with different sets of biases, depending largely on which event or events they identify the man with. What’s most impressive about the film is how it carefully deconstructs and reorients your understanding of those biases, all through the lens of the revolutionary lawyer’s storied career.

Kunstler is a hero to some. He was the famed lawyer who, along with co-counsel Len Weinglass, defended the Chicago 7 following the horrific events which occurred during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Kunstler was famously held in contempt of court for his radical behavior and sentenced to an unprecedented prison term for such an offense, though the ruling was later overturned.

The lawyer later joined the Native American movement who occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1973 as a form of protest against the US government’s broken treaties. He was instrumental in bringing about a non-violent end to the conflict and later successfully defended the American Indian Movement in court on criminal charges connected with the incident. And although Kunstler was unsuccessful in his attempt to prevent a non-violent confrontation following the 1971 Attica Prison riot, he was hailed for his efforts.

Kunstler was also perceived by many as an attention-seeking villain. He successfully defended Gregory Lee Johnson before the United States Supreme Court for his public burning of the American flag. He also took on a number of controversial cases as a criminal defense attorney, including the Central Park Five, who were arrested (and later exonerated, after Kunstler’s death) in 1989 for a high-profile gang rape/murder in New York’s Central Park, and El-Sayyid Nosair, who assassinated extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane.

It’s easy to misunderstand Kunstler’s motivations as the story unfolds. Even the daughters Emily and Sarah, the film’s narrators, seem at odds with their own observations. Growing up, the two constantly heard stories of their father the revolutionary. As they grew older, into their teens, Emily and Sarah beheld a seemingly different man, one happy to defend the worst villains imaginable in his apparent pursuit of fame and glory.

Throughout the film, the picture painted is one of an attention hound, perhaps even a raging egomaniac, a man who simply could not abide existing outside the limelight. William Kunstler endeavored to always be at the heart of any high-profile controversy, defending the seemingly undefendable at every turn. Almost as soon as this portrait comes together in the film, it falls apart. We viewers come to realize along with Emily and Sarah – for whom this project seems as much an attempt to understand their father as it is to profile him for the benefit of a viewing public – that it wasn’t primarily the attention that Kunstler strove for.

It was the death of bias in all its forms. He despised the idea that an individual or group could essentially be convicted in the court of public opinion. It’s a fact which becomes startlingly clear when you scan and really consider the list of Kunstler’s past clients. From the subversive patriots that were the Chicago 7 to the perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, Kunstler remained pure in his belief that every person living in the United States deserved a fair and even-handed trial, as free from bias as possible.

Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five, and Gregory Lee Johnson were both on hand to join Emily, Sarah and their mother Margaret after the world premiere screening at Sundance yesterday. It was a powerful Q&A, hearing these one-time pariahs discuss their impressions of the great lawyer and the lasting influence he has had on both of their lives.

I can’t recommend William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe highly enough. The journey from Sundance to wide release is always a crapshoot, but it seems fairly certain that this well-crafted doc is going to be picked up and distributed somewhere down the line. It’s a surprisingly detailed and even-handed portrait of a fascinating man, and a particularly compelling story in light of the coming Presidential inauguration. William Kunstler was a revolutionary, an activist, a defender for freedom and more, but first and foremost he was a right-thinking lawyer who believed that his country was worth defending, even when its leaders seemed determined to see it fail.

Pics to follow in the coming hours or days. Most likely days.

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