Sunday, December 6, 2009

Disturbingly of the Moment

A version of this review will be printed in the December 9th edition of The Envoy.

On November 17th of this year, the final appeal in the case of Lynne Stewart was denied, and she now sits in jail. Stewart is a New York City defense attorney who has represented the downtrodden and the unpopular for decades. She is now serving a 28-month jail term for a conviction that was made possible because the U.S. Government, using the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act, undermined attorney-client privilege, one of the cornerstones of the rule of law, in order to allege that she provided material aid to her client, who was charged in a terrorism-related offense.

What a moment in history to see the release of William Kunstler: Disturbing The Universe, a new documentary by Emily and Sarah Kuntsler.

William Kuntsler was a radical lawyer and at times a political firebrand outside the courtroom. He represented scores of defendants who, he really believed, had right on their side in the 1960’s and 1970’s. His most famous case came in 1970, when he represented the “Chicago Seven,” the defendants accused of starting riots which were in fact started by police, outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He served a jail sentence for Contempt of Court in that case, and emerged more radical than ever. He represented members of the American Indian Movement when they occupied the town of Wounded Knee, SD and the National Guard descended on them. He went to Attica State Prison in 1971 to act as a negotiator for inmates who’d taken over part of the prison in protest of their conditions, and was cruelly forced to watch as troops opened fire and indiscriminately murdered 39 people, including ten prison guards.

Kuntsler’s daughters, Emily and Sarah, made the film in part to tell his story, and in part, it seems, as a way to come to grips with who he was. It walks us through his personal history from serving as a Major in the Army in World War II, to settling down as a lawyer in the white picket fence world of Westchester County, to abandoning that life to fight for what he knew was right, even when that meant providing counsel for people who’d been accused of awful things.

Told in voiceover narration by Sarah, the Kuntsler sisters’ point of view helps give this story a warm, personal touch. We get a multi-dimensional picture of a man of tremendous moral and intellectual weight, but we also get a sense his many flaws. Though at times it takes on the feel of a group therapy session, hearing the story as told through the eyes of Emily and Sarah gives a personal, accurate and complete sense not just of William Kunstler the historical figure, but of Bill Kunstler the man.

Growing up in the West Village in the 1980’s, Emily and Sarah disapproved of many of their dad’s choices about whom to represent, and lived in fear of the havoc those choices might wreak on their lives. After the upheaval of the 1960’s early 1970’s had fully ebbed, they saw their father move away from his role as a stalwart champion of the oppressed, and toward what they saw as a series of attempts to garner publicity by representing the most reviled clients he could find.

Maybe it was an expression of a lofty principle the Kuntsler sisters look back on their father once articulating to them: “everybody deserves a lawyer.” Maybe it was partly that, and partly an attempt to hold onto the fading spotlight that had shone so brightly on him for so long. But in any case, the work would go on.

Kuntsler represented a man accused of murdering a fundamentalist Rabbi in Brooklyn. The political fallout from that case sent angry conservative Jewish protesters to the sidewalk in front of the Kuntsler family’s townhouse for months. In 1990, he represented Yusef Salam and four other Black teenagers who were accused of the brutal rape and beating of a young woman in “the Central Park Jogger Case.” The brutality of the crime sent much of New York City and the country into a frenzy of retaliatory rage, and it prompted Donald Trump to take out full-page newspaper ads demanding the death penalty for the culprits.

But in 2003, eight years after Kuntsler’s death, another man confessed to the crime. That confession, combined with DNA evidence, led to Yusef Salam’s exoneration. He was released from prison after 13 years. Those kids really didn’t do it.

We all have moments in our lives that we look back on as turning points. At one point in the film, we hear Sarah recount her father’s reaction the first time he saw Michelangelo’s famous statue of David. He looked up at the hulking marble statue that depicts a young biblical king calmly pausing as he prepares to slay a giant, and immediately knew that injustice would be his Goliath, and that from that point onward, he would fight to become a David who could help slay it.

Well Bill, wherever you are, sorry to be the one to have to tell you this: Goliath’s still out there. But you know what? Yusef Salam is alive and free. And that’s gotta count for something.


  1. You should hop to it. I don't know how much longer they're gonna keep the run going. It's at Cinema Village, 22 E. 12 St.