William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

The radical lawyer as star

William Kunstler and his daughter, Sarah, in 1977. Sarah and her sister Emily wrote and directed the film about their father. William Kunstler and his daughter, Sarah, in 1977. Sarah and her sister Emily wrote and directed the film about their father. (Maddy Miller)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / November 13, 2009

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‘William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe’’ is indeed about the radical-leftist attorney. But this engrossing and provocative documentary is also about a tragic kind of liberal guilt. The many cases Kunstler took until his death in 1995 - he defended the defenseless (African-American victims of discrimination) and the seemingly indefensible (alleged rapists, murderers, terrorists, and assassins) - suggest a man whose political sympathies bordered on the promiscuous.

This became a real problem for two of Kunstler’s daughters, Emily and Sarah. They wrote and directed “Disturbing the Universe,’’ and in it wrestle with their father’s incendiary taste in clients.

Emily and Sarah are the children in the second family Kunstler started, with the civil rights lawyer Margaret Ratner in the mid-1970s, after his years as a notorious champion of blacks, radicals, Vietnam veterans, American Indians, and the inhumanely housed men of Attica prison. The girls were proud of their father’s early fights. But the latter years of his career vexed them.

Kunstler kept his legal office in the family’s Greenwich Village brownstone, and, in agreeing to represent, say, El Sayyid Nosair, who murdered the Israeli extremist politician Meir Kahane, the house seemed to be under siege. Bullets would arrive in the mail. The girls couldn’t go out. “Why was I being punished for something my father did?’’ one of them wonders, courtesy of narration, in classic teenage fashion.

Using well-deployed archival footage, the filmmakers present a brief history of their father, how he began his adulthood as a suburban lawyer in 1950s Westchester, and found himself drawn to civil-rights activism, then, by the late 1960s and his star-making defense of the Chicago 8, to drugs and radicalism.

The film argues that Kunstler’s stardom was, in fact, a side effect he came to enjoy. His public embraces of John Gotti and frequent appearances on Phil Donahue’s talk show bear this out. The notoriety that came with defending men like Nosair and one of the black teenagers accused in the Central Park rape trial appealed to him. One colleague (and Sarah Kunstler’s law-firm boss), Elizabeth Fink, says Kunstler did take those cases for fame. Alan Dershowitz, in a room with one of the Kunstler daughters, reluctantly says that her father acted inconsistently with his principles. (In “The Most Hated Lawyer in America,’’ David Langum’s very good biography of Kunstler, Dershowitz’s criticism is less polite.)

The fame argument is cogent enough. But Kunstler was also honorably and dangerously compassionate. There’s an anecdote in the film about his decision to look up the family of the slain Japanese soldier who charged at him with a bayonet during WWII. He told the parents their son died a hero.

According to the film, social justice was at the heart of his legal philosophy. He tried to instill in his daughters the idea that all white people are inherently racist: They have all the power in America, and the law is often used against minorities. Seeing a non-white person in trouble, he gave them the reflexive benefit of the doubt, regardless of the circumstances. This sense of liberal guilt warped him. It’s as if he wanted to punish a part of himself for what his forefathers did.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

WILLIAM KUNSTLER: Disturbing the Universe

Directed by: Emily

and Sarah Kunstler

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 93 minutes


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