Thursday, November 25, 2010


Making a film to understand your father

By Edward Copeland
With his shock of out-of-control, graying hair and his love for the spotlight, the late attorney William Kunstler achieved quite a degree of fame in the final three decade of his life. First, from his fabled defense of the Chicago 7 following the 1968 Democratic National Convention and later for his willingness to take the most unpopular of clients making former supporters turns on him and his two young daughters from a late-in-life second marriage question their father's choices. Sarah and Emily Kunstler's wrestling with their dueling views of their dad took the form of the documentary William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, one of the 15 finalists for the 2010 Oscar for documentary feature and a deserved one.

Many documentaries have shown adult children trying to reconcile their feelings about their parents, but Disturbing the Universe proves to be exceptionally well done, giving the uninformed a primer on who Kunstler was at the same time that the daughters interview their father's contemporaries to learn more about what he was really like and to search for answers as to what to them seemed to be a mysterious change in him from a respected civil rights attorney to a lawyer who just took the most controversial clients he could, no matter what the impact would be on his family.

Kunstler's beginnings were quite conventional. A veteran of World War II, he went to law school on the G.I. Bill and opened a small practice with his brother in the 1950s, taking ordinary cases of the sort you might expect from a small-time suburban lawyer. (The only truly interesting thing he did was draw up Joe McCarthy's will and that was only because he was a classmate of Roy Cohn's and hope to get some notice.) All that changed when he became involved in a case of housing discrimination of a black couple in his home town. The racism disgusted him and it turned him onto a different path, the path that led to his infamous defense of the Chicago 7 where the judge held him in contempt and sentenced him to four years in jail, a sentence eventually overturned.

It earned him a reputation on the left as a civil liberties hero. He'd go on to defend the Native Americans during the standoff at Wounded Knee and tried to negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis at Attica prison. He argued before the Supreme Court, defending the man who burned the American flag outside the 1988 Republican National Convention in Dallas on the grounds of the First Amendment. As part of his arguments to the high court, Kunstler said:
"To hear things or see things that we hate tests the First Amendment more than seeing or hearing things that we like. It wasn't designed for things we like. They never needed a First Amendment. This amendment was designed so that the things we hate can have a place in the marketplace of ideas and can have an area where protest can find itself."

Actions such as these made his daughters, products of his second marriage in 1976, very proud of their father, but as he aged, he started to take cases they couldn't defend. The first such case was when he defended the young black men accused in the brutal Central Park attack and rape on a woman that became a tabloid sensation. The young daughters didn't understand how he could defend these people being characterized in the press as "monsters" because of the brutality of the crime.

He lost more of his liberal friends when he defended the Palestinian accused of assassinating the controversial ultra-Israeli nationalist Rabbi Martin David Kahane. Protesters would routinely stand outside Kunstler's home accusing him of being a self-hating Jew. Sarah and Emily, when they saw protesters, often would pretend that they didn't live there. Threats became routine, so much so that Kunstler would only open packages alone in the basement just in case there were explosives inside. Later, he would defend those accused in the first attack on the World Trade Center.

Sarah and Emily admit that at some point they began to suspect that their father had simply lost his mind, doing odd things such as writing sonnets about O.J. Simpson and representing a cat accused of crimes against humanity in a mock trial. Toward the end of his life, he even took to performing at the comedy club Caroline's, one such appearance scheduled the same week after he had a pacemaker installed. He predicted to his daughters that when he died, it would be over Labor Day weekend when all the first-string reporters would be off and that's exactly what happened.

Still, so many people who knew him had so many warm things to say about him. One tells the anecdote about how people would yell at him in the street about how much they hate him and he would stop and ask to discuss things with them and by the time they parted, they'd be friends.

Years later, after the men he'd defended in the Central Park attack had been convicted and served seven years in prison, new evidence surfaced that showed others were responsible and the convictions were tossed and the men Kunstler defended were freed. The men that Sarah and Emily couldn't believe their father would defend turned out to be innocent after all. It's a nice coda to a wonderful documentary that's not a love letter to a father, but a filmed exploration to understand a man.

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