Directed by Emily and Sarah Kunstler
85 minutes (Off Center Media)
When I ran into the self-described “radical lawyer” William Kunstler in the early 1970s, he seemed to me a man who realized that he had been grandfathered into the Movement (literally: he was over fifty when the rest of us were just then realizing that we’d have to learn to trust people over thirty) and was trying to make up for lost time. He used his celebrity from the Chicago Seven trial to hit on lefty women and peppered his sentences with “right on!” and “power to the people!” and other locutions of what was already becoming a dead dialect. He seemed to want to be a leader at a moment when people who had been leaders for years were being punished for “protagonism” by collectives that posted intercourse assignments every evening to root out bourgeois possessiveness or cults of personality. He seemed to have no sense that the Thermidor of our radical era had already been reached, and the long falling action was well under way. A little off key, making the arriviste’s subtle gaffes, Kunstler had the confidence of someone who has bought at the top of the market.
I doubt that his daughters, Sarah and Emily, creators of a new documentary about Kunstler called Disturbing the Universe, would accept such a description—not necessarily because of what it says about their father, but because of what it says about the radical Sixties. Even though they were born, respectively, in 1976 and 1978, and know this era only through a sort of political Braille, they seem to regard it as the shopkeeper does the parrot in the famous Monty Python skit: not dead, just sleeping. Their documentary is meant in part as a wake-up call to rehabilitate what they regard as the Sixties’ values. So of course they have stitched into the story of their father’s exhortation to “change the world” iconic footage from the familiar grainy newsreels of the era: the South Vietnamese officer pulling out a pistol and shooting Viet Cong terrorist Nguyen Van Lem in the head in front of reporters; Bobby Seale in a Black Panther rant about the “pig power structure”; and Chicago police beating a swath through demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic Convention with their nightsticks. To provide testimonials, they have assembled senior citizens from what they clearly think of as the Kunstler era: antique incarnations of Seale and the still-ubiquitous Tom Hayden, along with Clyde Bellecourt, Dan Berrigan and Julian Bond; a clueless Phil Donahue and even a mummified Harry Belafonte. They are all part of a choir singing in perfect harmony about Kunstler’s obdurate hostility to injustice and his hatred of racism, and how he stands as a reminder of a once and future era by which our own fallen time can be measured and found wanting.
There is legal backup too: witnesses for the defense such as Elizabeth Fink, Lenny Weinglass and even Lynne Stewart, who defended the “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel-Rahman until she was herself convicted of trying to help him connect with his terror network. These interviews sound like a seminar hosted by the National Lawyers Guild. The only one who strikes a note of authenticity is outlier Alan Dershowitz, who reluctantly tells the daughters, as they press him off-camera, that yes, he considered their father a hypocrite. His pained expression as he says this suggests that he regards this evaluation as only the tip of an iceberg whose depths are inappropriate to measure at this time.
Kunstler doesn’t much help his own case. His was a wooden speaking style that only rarely attained a sort of lugubrious eloquence. For the most part, the clips included of him depict his heavy-handed indictments of America and Americans of racism, which, as narrator Emily admits, “was all Dad talked about.” After the Chicago police killed Black Panther Fred Hampton, for instance, Kunstler is shown as saying, “All the white people of the United States killed Fred Hampton. Just as we’ve killed every black man. . . . In particular he was killed by The System.” These sentences capture exactly the ethical vacuity of the time in which they were spoken.
Yet while Disturbing the Universe is weighed down by socialist realism, it is kept afloat by a sure narrative touch and by interesting archival footage from family and other sources, and by the intensity of the daughters’ quest to “understand” their father. The opening scenes show home movies of Sarah and Emily Kunstler as giggling little girls talking about “the famous lawyer William Kunstler.” They played under the desk in his basement office and eavesdropped on his phone conversations with a clientele that was by then becoming dangerous. As precocious tweens, they interviewed him on tape on weighty subjects such as whether the American legal system was racist. (“Yes, no doubt about that”, he replies matter-of-factly, as if reading them a bedtime story. “The courts are part of the white power structure and the function of the district attorneys and courts is to see how many third-world people they can put away.”) As teenagers they appeared with him on a local television news program to argue about how to produce radical change. And now, having grown up, the daughters are ready finally to ”come to terms” with this “silver-tongued trickster, pied piper and inciter of riots”, in Emily’s words, a looming figure who was always “larger than life.”
The story they tell is partly that of a man who came into the radical Sixties from “a whole other life in a parallel universe”, as Emily puts it. He had grown up in relative privilege, entered the Army after Pearl Harbor and fought as an officer throughout the South Pacific, then returned home to go to law school, marry, and have two daughters and a home in Westchester County. Taking whatever cases came his way, Kunstler was ambitious enough to write a book, but so much a journeyman was he that the book he wrote was about nothing more consequential than The Laws of Accident. He was an “armchair liberal” who joined the ACLU and volunteered to go South to help the Freedom Riders, but was also willing, because of a friendship with law school classmate Roy Cohn, to draft Joe McCarthy’s will.
This first life, the daughters imply, was actually a chrysalis within which their father was metamorphosing into a “hero from legend.” His evolving passion for social justice first fully manifested itself when he took the case of a local black man named Paul Redd, who had been denied the right to rent an apartment in Westchester, New York. His desire to experience the authenticity the Sixties offered, particularly in its beguiling promise that the personal would become political, soon led Kunstler to defend Father Daniel Berrigan, SJ, and the rest of the Catonsville Nine, who had used homemade napalm to destroy local draft files. Emily says that the case was a personal Rubicon because it “taught Dad that a courtroom could be used for a moral purpose, and to believe in a power greater than the law.”
Because the Berrigans wanted to plead guilty and martyr themselves, Kunstler couldn’t put the system itself on trial—the approach Bay Area attorney Charles Garry had pioneered in his 1967 case, which got Huey Newton off the hook for killing a cop. But Kunstler would later raise this courtroom technique to the status of performance art when he took on the defense of the Chicago Seven, in a case that became the great Movement event of 1969.
The Chicago Seven trial was a kicked up, psychedelic, no-fault echo of the Scopes Trial, Sacco and Vanzetti, the “public burning” of the Rosenbergs, and other great courtroom sagas of the American past. In a drama that featured the gagging and shackling of Bobby Seale and the yippee high jinks of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Kunstler had a starring role. His best scenes involved his sparring with hapless Judge Stanley Hoffman, whose inexplicable and inarticulate rulings gave body to the idea of a kangaroo court and made him into a punching bag for the defense. By the time it was over, Kunstler had a four-year sentence for contempt that no one believed he would ever have to serve. He had established himself not only as the Movement’s Everylawyer but as one of its instant martyrs as well.
His daughters portray the Chicago Trial as a life-changing experience for their father. Tom Hayden supports this theory: “It broke him down and reconstituted him as a hippie and a radical.” Elizabeth Fink says that he simply didn’t want to return to the life of a “straight lawyer coming home at night and playing with his kids.” Acting on the quintessential New Left injunction to “just do it”, Kunstler left his first wife and daughters and moved into a new, liberated lifestyle. Soon he entered into a relationship with fellow attorney Margaret Ratner, who became his second wife and the mother of his documentarian daughters. He discovered dope, too, but the only addiction he developed was to the Sixties itself.
For a time, Kunstler’s life became a radical travelogue. After Chicago came Attica, where the inmates had staged a takeover and he, along with Louis Farrakhan and others with a nose for apocalypse, agreed to serve as negotiators. The film portrays the takeover of the prison in an anodyne way, as the penal equivalent of a sit-in, when in fact the prisoners were out for blood because of the recent killing (“assassination”, in Movement lingo) of George Jackson, the “Soledad Brother” who founded the Black Guerrilla Family and met his end at San Quentin. Nor do the filmmakers mention some of the loony demands that were floated at the height of the Attica euphoria: transportation to a “non-imperialist country” and reconstruction of the prison by inmates under inmate supervision, and so on. They say their father was traumatized by the killings that resulted when negotiations reached an impasse, but they downplay the fact that in his haste to show he was righteously with them, Kunstler failed to advise the inmates that their “non-negotiable” demand for amnesty from criminal charges (they had killed a guard at the beginning of the takeover) would lead only to catastrophe, and thus he actually had something to feel guilty about.
The next entry in his trip log was South Dakota in 1973, where deracinated militants of the American Indian Movement, somewhat risibly posturing as Lakota braves in the tradition of Crazy Horse, had seized and occupied the town of Wounded Knee and were involved in a dangerous armed standoff with authorities. The documentarians, of course, include vintage photos of the 1890 massacre, with frozen Indian bodies being thrown into a common grave whose monument their father visited. (“Dad told us he felt their spirits move.”) But while it could have ended very badly, the second Wounded Knee, affirming Marx’s idea that history occurs first as tragedy and then repeats itself as farce, was mainly a media circus. Kunstler’s daughters claim he had been “ripped in half” by Attica and was now “made whole” by the spirituality of the Indians. For confirmation, they interview their own mother and allow her a moment of bathos: “He was passionate about Indian religion [and] felt it was too bad he wasn’t born native American because his spirit would have soared like an eagle.”
But the opportunities for such radical tourism were drying up in an era increasingly dominated by the Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army and other death cults committed to Fanonist fantasies of revolutionary violence. Such groups didn’t provide much of a scaffolding for moral preening or pronunciamentos about racism. The Kunstler daughters sadly report how their father was now forced to make a transition from crusading civil rights lawyer, with the entire country as his courtroom, to a simple New York criminal defense attorney taking on the cases of clients who frequently gave them nightmares. They report, for instance, how Kunstler was able to win an acquittal for Larry Davis, a black thug who famously shot six New York policemen. But when he went a step further and called Davis a “hero”, Emily is forced to ask, “What was heroic about shooting six cops?” It is a good question. She might also have mentioned that Davis soon returned to his past profession of shaking down and murdering drug dealers after being sprung by her father. And that he was finally convicted and sent to prison, where he eventually was killed in a knife fight with another inmate.
The great civil rights cases may have vanished, but the intimations of martyrdom did not. The film shows a handful of Jewish Defense Leaguers demonstrating outside the Kunstler brownstone in the aftermath of his defense of El Sayyid Nosair, the man who murdered Rabbi Meir Kahane. Emily says that the family was afraid, although the demonstrators apparently did nothing more threatening than shoot some paint pellets at their second-story windows. The film describes constant FBI surveillance. Emily solemnly intones, “While other children were frightened of ghosts and monsters, I feared the police, the President and the FBI.”
Disturbing the Universe gets interesting toward the end, when the daughters indicate that their father, who had already proved that there are indeed second acts in American lives, greedily tried for a third. Unable to shake his addiction to his own celebrity, he defended a variety of dubious characters: Asata Shakkur, who killed New Jersey State troopers during the notorious 1977 Brink’s Robbery before fleeing to Cuba; the Blind Sheikh; Colin Ferguson, the man responsible for the Long Island Railroad shootings; and associates of the Gambino crime family. “Dad had gotten so used to being in the spotlight”, Emily notes sadly, “that it didn’t seem to matter how he got there any more.”
The daughters admit that their father descended into buffoonery in his last years—writing sonnets to O.J., giving John Gotti a flamboyant public embrace, and finally defending in a mock trial a housecat named Tyrone that had been charged with “crimes against humanity.” They even bring his legal colleague Barry Slotnick on screen to say that “some people thought he was crazy”, and themselves admit, in a sober reflection: “Dad taught us to stand up against injustice but he stopped standing for anything at all.”
This is a moment when the filmmakers could have made brave artistic choices—not necessarily by following the path of a Sylvia Plath snarling about “Daddy”, but at least by honestly evaluating what their father’s time in the radical limelight really amounted to, and whether his end, as T.S. Eliot might have said, was not fully present in his beginning. But the Kunstlers have no intention of going there. Instead, they simply discount the last part of their father’s life as pathetic, as “not him.” They reassert their vision of his prior heroism during coverage of his 1995 funeral, a leftist version of a state occasion replete with drumming Indians, shout-outs by black radicals, maudlin eulogies, and a stock epitaph: “Stand up to injustice even if you have to risk everything.” The whole affair lacked only an exhumed Joe Hill popping up to say, “Don’t mourn, organize.”
But getting a full sense of where the filmmakers are coming from requires waiting out the scrawl of the credits at the end. It turns out that Disturbing the Universe is dedicated to a pair of vintage murderers, Leonard Peltier and Jamil Abdullah Al Amin (slave name: H. Rap Brown), who are thankfully in heavy lockdown, and that the film’s motto is that rancid rallying cry of the Sixties, “Free all Political Prisoners.” At that point it is clear that art has been agitprop all along, and it is hard not to conclude that while the Kunstler girls may love and honor their father, at least that part of him they regard as having been true to the cause, their hearts belong to dada.