- It seems appropriate that in this year of the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock that the most seminal lawyer of that era should be celebrated by his daughters in a brilliant Bio-Doc called "Disturbing The Universe." Depending on your political persuasion, William Kunstler
was, as called by the New York Times
, "The most hated and most loved lawyer in America." Loved or hated, his impact on the politics of the day and courtroom protocol
has left an indelible mark on American jurisprudence.
Co-Directors Emily and Sarah Kunstler.
Chosen by Summer Docs Executive Director Alec Baldwin
, "Distrubing The Universe" was screened to an SRO crowd at Guild Hall
on Sept. 4, wrapping up the maiden season of this film series which is produced in conjunction with the Hamptons International Film Festival
). The film premiered in January at this year's Sundance Festival and appropriately is a featured documentary this month at the Woodstock Film Festival.
and Sarah Kunstler have painted a brilliant and even-handed portrait of a lawyer's journey from a suburban Westchester attorney with a prosperous Manhattan practice to an ardent political activist and legal gadfly. It was a journey driven by an unrelenting conscience and an uncompromising belief that justice in America was not blind, but delivered with eyes wide shut based on political, racial and economic prejudices.
Prior to the screening I asked political activist and long-time Kunstler associate, friend and attorney Jerry Lefcourt
what turned Kunstler from a simple lawyer into a national activist, "Here is what happened to him. In 1961 the American Civil Liberties Union asked him to be an observer of the integration of the rail and bus terminals in Mississippi. He went down as an observer and he saw young people, blacks and whites, being beaten and thrown in jail by racist, southern law officers. He became ill. This is a man who was educated at Yale
and Columbia, who had a terrific practice on Fifth Avenue, and who taught law school at the time. He went and volunteered to work in the civil rights movement and he discovered something that made the civil rights revolution possible. He had unearthed an old statute that had never been used in 100 years to remove all of those state prosecutions of demonstrators into the federal courts with federal judges to read them and to review the statute that he discovered that fueled the civil rights movement and brought it to the side of Martin Luther King, Jr.
I asked Lefcourt if Kunstler went looking for the statute or if he tripped over it, "He was looking for a way to get these demonstrators, masses of them, which were jailed by these racist southern judges freed. It got the federal courts involved in the civil rights movement. Which changed everything and he became Martin Luther King's personal trial lawyer. The rest is history."
Film poster of "Disturbing The Universe."
Kunstler's personal impact on Lefcourt is just as profound, "I was trying to create a union for defense attorneys at the Public Defenders Office in New York City
and I got fired for trying to start this union. Our goal was to improve the quality of legal representation for the poor. Bill Kunstler came to my aid, represented me and made me a cause celebre and introduced me to Sidney Zion
at the New York Times
who wrote a series of articles on our attempts to improve the Legal Aid Society."
If the times do indeed define the man, then Kunstler was best defined by the civil rights and anti-war movement of the 1960s. He defended the Chicago
Seven, the Black Panthers, the leaders of the American Indian Movement, H. Rap Brown
, Stokely Carmichael
, and as previously stated, Martin Luther King, Jr., among many other pivotal figures of the era.
He was the legal voice for a generation that challenged the status quo and in the process held a mirror up to the American definition of a truly free society and the Bill of Rights interpretation of fair and equal representation under the law. He was a hero to millions of disenfranchised Americans and with every word he spoke in a courtroom he seemed to speak for each one of them. At the same time, for those opposed, he was the devil incarnate.
For me the most poignant moment of the film came in his failed attempt as a negotiator trying to end the prisoner takeover of Attica Prison. Governor Rockefeller did not give Kunstler the "one more day" he asked for and as a result the most deadly prison uprising in American history ended in a disaster that left both bodies of prisoners and guards alike lifeless in a muddy prison yard. It devastated Kunstler, more personally than professionally. He felt every loss and carried them, according to his daughters, in his soul personally for the rest of his life.
As those halcyon days of American self-consciousness morphed into the "me" generations of the 1980s and 1990s, Kunstler's clients seemed to have held less "To Kill A Mockingbird" appeal to the media, the general public and his own daughters, who were too young to remember his civil rights activism. He defended the accused in the first 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center; he defended one of the defendants in the "Central Park Jogger" rape case, latter proved innocent based on indisputable DNA evidence.
Perhaps his most controversial case, reacted to based on his own ethnic Jewish heritage, was his defense of El-Sayyid Nosair
, the assassin of Zionist leader Rabbi Meir Kahane
. Kunstler and his family were subjected to death threats and daily demonstrations in front of his Greenwich Village townhouse
that held the small, unimpressive, basement law office he shared with his junior partner Ron Kuby
The joy of this film is that his daughters, Emily and Sarah, addressed this aspect of Kunstler's professional life as honestly as they addressed the heady days of their father's iconic years as the legal voice of American dissent and dissatisfaction. A voice that not only resonated in the pages of dailies like the New York Times
and monthlies like The Atlantic
, but in the conversation of every American that questioned and challenged every accepted notion of an idealized American democracy that had not been challenged since the Civil War.
He defended the least and most hated among us, as he defended the most revered in an era when "pacifist" and "liberal" were not dirty words. He defended and lost a case that could never be won for a Roman-Catholic priest named Daniel Berrigan
and yet defended cop killers, terrorists and mobsters and won.
He may have always intended to win, but that was not the cause. What he did intend to do was give defense to those most likely not to be truly defended. That to Kunstler was intolerable, for all that he defended, good or bad, first and foremost justice was to be served. A court of law was his most sacred shrine and where the least among us could find equality and vindication. "Power to the people" was undoubtedly his favorite phrase, resonated throughout the film. The courtroom was a stage to play out and challenge the inequalities of the American justice system. Play it out he did, as Kunstler was as much an actor as he was a barrister.
The Kunstler daughters have created an extraordinary film. It is honest and insightful, it is a film that will resonate in the hearts of every American that lived through the era and should inspire a generation that wished they had been part of it. It is a montage of home movies, news footage, and print headlines that have done more than define a man, they have defined a generation that was defined by that man, William Kunstler.
"Disturbing The Universe" hopes for a theatrical release in November. Fill the seats! There is no excuse not to see this film. It will inspire, it will invigorate, and it will renew your faith in all that makes America great in its affirmation of free speech and justice for all. Never better exemplified than in the documentation of the life of William Kunstler; a documentary created by two daughters that are brilliant filmmakers and painfully honest historians.
For more info go to: www.disturbuingtheuniverse.com.
Frequently mistaken for the "Most Interesting Man in the World" from the Dos Equis commercials and the iconic gray-bearded Sean Connery, DMH is the Senior Contributing Editor at Hamptons.com. www.hamptons.com