On June 22nd William M. Kunstler’s story, Disturbing the Universe, will be the slam-bang audacious start of the independent film series POV’s 23rd season. Sixteen years after his death his daughters, Sarah and Emily, made this documentary to show us his legacy, a snap shot of his life story, and the lessons born from them.
Mr. Kunstler’s friends and family say that you either love him as a radical lawyer or desired him dead as a national heretic and traitor to the “original intent” of America’s founding fathers. That binary “range of opinion” comes from the troubling positions and clients that he took on during his increasingly public career and life.
During the 1960s and 70s he attacked housing discrimination, defended the Chicago 8, strove to help to negotiate the hostage situation in New York’s Attica Correctional Facility, and he claimed the Natives’ cause when they occupied their own land at Wounded Knee, S.D. He became an icon, a litigious icon for the era’s liberal righteousness.
If these historical marks are hazy, maybe you “know” Mr. Kunstler just from the movies. He played a judge for a moment in Spike Lee’s film, Malcolm X, from 1992. After attaining a certain degree of public exposure Mr. Kunstler turned a corner; He defended alleged and brazen terrorists and murderers. Neither moderation, nor subtlety seems to fit beside his name in any phrase.
As a documentary, Disturbing the Universe is like a love letter both to the daughters’ father and to those whom he still inspires. That specialness comes from the film’s intimate, poetic, and memoir-like tone. Sarah and Emily employ excerpts from home movies, playful Q&As with their dad, and other recordings that children will make when they’re bored and curious enough; these elements are as incisive as they are innocent. Those elements distinguish the film from typical documentaries that rely on archival footage and standard source interviews.
The film opens by introducing Kunstler’s daughters from what was his second marriage. But they in-turn introduce the disturber of the universe himself in his high profile hey day. After that they slow the pace by telling us that his life and career began meekly, as with most extraordinary and unreasonable individuals.
Here is a film about a flamboyant and brilliant bombast who strove to bend the laws to his and a generation’s will. Disturbing the Universe poses questions. Then we feel like we have to respond, asking other questions. This film demands that you think.
The daughters Kunstler use the story of David and Goliath as a consistent narrative motif, and as a personal analogue for their dad. Disturbing the Universe lifts that motif into being a subplot of a sort. It asks many questions in doing so; those questions are slippery and rarely comfortable: What is justice? How reasonable or wholesome should the pursuit of it be? To what extent may you question the government, more specifically its wisdom or agenda without being a threat? That’s intense, off-putting stuff. So were Mr. Kunstler, and his work, and the zeal that he invested in it.
The man had contradictions that glared at us. The pleasure he took in having a high profile seemed to trump, or even usurp, his rowdy insurgent zeal. That’s ironic, but it’s also all too common. What happens when “the fix” you get from public love and media exposure beguiles you more intensely and far more often than the satisfaction that righteous clients and causes give you? I’ll borrow the title of George Stephanopoulos’ political memoir as I call Mr. Kunstler “All Too Human.” Those contradictions and that lack of congruence are some of the major reasons why he polarized some individuals. Those also confused the heck out of his daughters and other people who held him dearly. Mr. Kunstler had a few versions of himself, disparate parts of his persona. We all do. But since he was public, extremely public, so were these.
The colossal questions that he and his legacy raise are fascinating, They also belong in a lecture or a seminar. The more interesting and probably illusive answers come in response to this question: what was it like for his no-longer-little girls to ask “Why is daddy fighting for a terrorist?” How confusing is it to start off seeing your dad as a defender of a child’s known universe and then see apparently villainous clients? The kind of client whom no amount of Herculian rhetoric jousting could convince you they deserved his counsel.
There is a reason why some people saw William M. Kunstler as having disturbed the universe. I don’t know whose story should interest us more, the dad’s or either of his daughter’s?