William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Given the ongoing debates about high school history curricula, it’s often difficult to know how(or even if) some key historical actors will be remembered for their contributions to public discourse, to debates of issues over race and racism, civil rights and human rights.  During the 1960s and ’70s (and beyond), William Kunstler was at the center of many of these debates.  He represented many of the Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights movement, defended the Chicago Seven, and fought on behalf of the Native Americans in the Wounded Knee standoff and on behalf of the prisoners in Attica, NY.  Later in his life, however, he fought for alleged rapists, for mafia boss John Gotti, and for the men accused of bombing the World Trade Center in 1993.

Kunstler’s story is told in a new documentary written and directed by his daughters, Emily and Sarah Kunstler, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (IMDB), which attempts to address an essential tension: was Kunstler a champion of the underdog who fought for the basic rights of an individual, a David-figure ready to stand up against the Goliaths of the world, whether institutionalized racism or unjust warfare?  Or was he a showman, someone who craved attention and loved the media spotlight?  To some extent, as Ella Taylor points out, the answer is obvious: a little bit of both.  But I think the question itself is a little reductive.  Although the Kunstler daughters emphasize their father’s guilt about racism–and his belief that all whites are essentially guilty of racism–his overriding political beliefs seemed a little obscure to me.  To some extent, this seems like a result of the film’s “anguished dance around hagiography” (Taylor’s phrase).  It’s as if the daughters feel compelled to present a “warts-and-all” biography of their father and felt obligated to include some of the unsavory people he defended.  This approach to Kunstler’s story takes on a narrative of decline, with much of his work in the 1980s and ’90s (including his fight to protect flag burning as political speech) pushed to the side in order to fulfill that larger “theory” (to use their term).

There are some powerful moments that I felt deserved further emphasis.  During the Chicago Eight trial, one of the jurors, Jean Fritz, recalls that the judge in the case ordered that defendant Bobby Seale be bound and gagged and recalled feeling at that moment that she began to lose faith in her government.  But in many ways, the film seems to temper Kunstler’s conviction that the judicial system was balanced in favor of the rich and powerful and sometimes seems to force Kunstler’s story into a slightly reductive narrative from a radical awakening in the 1960s (after practicing “bread-and-butter” law for a decade or so) into decline during the 1980s and ’90s.  Still, it’s an important reminder of the important (and ongoing) fight for human rights and lawyer who played such an important role in many of those battles.

William Kunstler: Defending the Universe will be broadcast as part of PBS’s POV series on June 22.

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