William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (2010)

Written & Directed by Emily & Sarah Kunstler

I am an idealist. I believe in things even if it makes me naïve or a bit removed from reality, but when I die, I hope that people show up and say that I made a difference, that the world is better because I have lived. William Kunstler was also an idealist, but his impact was seen, and seen by a great number of people. This film is a documentary by Emily and Sarah Kunstler about their father. William Kunstler was a lawyer, but what is more is that he was a civil rights lawyer and surrounded himself with controversy. Emily and Sarah set out to discover just who their father was, for his legendary cases all took place before they were alive. After their births, his cases were still controversial, but for reasons that angered and confused the two daughters, for he had begun defending rapists, murderers and mob bosses.

The beginning is set up to answer the question of why the shift in this man’s m.o. Where did his ideals go? The women go back and interview the people that made him famous, the people that were there when his ideals and great lawyering made a difference in the civil rights movement. We see what happened at Attica Prison in New York and Wounded Knee, South Dakota. But most notably we see what happened in the Chicago Conspiracy trial in 1969. All of these events paint Kunstler as a man of passion, compassion, and action. Not only does he defend these people, but he becomes a part of their causes. Some of the issues he stood up for are great atrocities by the government which he declared to be the authoritative branch of the racist whites. His skeptical views of government and the idea that all whites are racist, it is only a matter of degree and awareness seem to ring so true in my mind.

William Kunstler was a remarkable figure and I can see maybe why Emily and Sarah didn’t truly know who their father was. He was so involved in his work, even after his prominent Civil Rights cases, that it seems accurate that he would have little time to spend with his family, but I think this documentary does prove that they loved their father and he loved them. He taught them to stand up for what they believed in and be actors, not observers. There is a parallel drawn to Michelangelo’s statue of David that is so strong and sums up the film quite well. The Statue of David captures the biblical hero just before his moment of greatness against Goliath. It captures the moment when he must make the decision to sink into the crown of inaction or rise to the occasion and fight for what he believes, even if the opponent is a giant.

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