Cross examination 

New doc gives fair trial to famed lawyer

Couldn't you have just guessed that William Kunstler was a hunt-and-peck typist? It's perfectly, perversely appropriate that one of the great orators and outsized media personalities of American public life in the last half of the 20th century would only be able to render his thoughts on paper two slow stabbing fingers at a time. William Kunstler: Defender of Mississippi Freedom Riders, the original 1993 WTC bombers, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, Jerry Rubin and the Sioux militants at Wounded Knee. Tap. Tap. Tap tap.

click to enlarge Yo, Dad. Li’l help, please?
  • Yo, Dad. Li’l help, please?

An enormous presence, love him or hate him, the late Kunstler (who died in 1995 of heart failure) now gets the biographical treatment by a pair of filmmakers with very privileged access to the man and his legacy. Namely, his daughters Sarah and Emily.

For over four decades (granted, with rests) Kunstler seemed to be in the thick of nearly every significant criminal controversy in the United States. He rode along with the vanguard of civil rights protesters in the early '60s. He defended the Chicago Seven (originally Eight) against charges of conspiring to incite riots in the aftermath of the violent 1968 Democratic National Convention. After surrendering at Wounded Knee, the AIM defendants requested his services immediately. He was the guy to get you off, a master of courtroom performance with a strong track record for winning seemingly unwinnable cases.

Many of Kunstler's client choices struck Americans as outrageous. He sided with drug dealers, cop-killers, Black Panthers and suspected terrorists. He won an acquittal for Larry Davis on grounds of self-defense—the first such verdict in American history—after Davis shot six police officers during a 1986 raid on his sister's Bronx apartment. After the assault and gang-rape of a Central Park jogger in 1989—press coverage of which event bequeathed to English the marvelous term "wilding"—Kunstler represented the five black teenagers, chosen seemingly at random from a group of 30, who were charged with the crime. People bayed for Kunstler's blood during these trials: What on earth was he doing representing these scumbags?

Sarah and Emily Kunstler remember the fear. Emily, who narrates the documentary, admits that they weren't around—that is to say, alive—for their father's glory days defending conscientious objectors and civil rights protestors. As a 10-year-old, she begged him not to represent a 16-year-old charged with participating in the Central Park assault. She recalls how her father used to open his packages alone in the basement in case they contained explosives. Emily remembers the hate mail, the picketers in front of their home, most of all the sickening realization that their father and idol was representing some very bad people.

"He told us everyone deserved a lawyer," she says. "Sometimes we just didn't understand why the lawyer had to be our father."

One might understandably assume that an undertaking such as William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe—portrait of the lawyer-turned-media-superstar by his admiring daughters—however clear-eyed it proclaimed to be, would still succumb to a certain sort of selective familial myopia. Happily, this does not seem to be the case. The Kunstler sisters, who appear in numerous archival elements as well as themselves in the present day, interviewing their father's former associates, turn out to be inquiring minds from a very young age. They go from giggling and spying on their famous dad from beneath his desk to posing tough questions in amateur reel-to-reel interviews, even grilling him, as teenagers, on a television news digest. Affectionate Disturbing the Universe may be, blindly adoring it is not.

Emily also cops to taking her father with a grain of salt. Critics of the longhaired, radicalized Kunstler circa 1969 might have been surprised to learn that the liberal firebrand was a decorated Army veteran who attained the rank of major. On a Pacific island, he was wounded in the arm by a young Japanese soldier with a bayonet who lunged at him from a ruined building. A nearby sergeant shot his assailant dead on the spot—an experience that profoundly affected Kunstler.

On the other hand, Emily reveals, their father used to brag about taking a stiffly defended island almost single-handedly after misreading a set of coded instructions and landing his troops an hour before the main cohort. She and her sister never knew how much of what their father told them to believe—no small matter when it comes to reassembling his life in movie form.

The Kunstlers' private archives provide the movie with many of its vintage elements (the sisters deserve special recognition for including footage of themselves as radioactively teenaged teenagers debating their dad on television). Also weighing in are contemporaries Ron Kuby, Alan Dershowitz and a host of other lawyers (What's the collective noun? A pox of lawyers? A killing?) as well as Bobby Seale, activist Tom Hayden, journalist Jimmy Breslin and Yusef Salaam, one of the so-called Central Park Five convicted in the assault on the female jogger. Together, the elements make for an engaging and apparently truthful portrait of William Kunstler, clay feet and all, by the two least likely to render one.

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe screens at the Wilma Theatre Saturday, Sept. 5, at 7:30 PM. as part of The Big Sky Film series. Free.

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