William Kunstler: Disturbing The Universe

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[The Big Picture]

In some quarters William Kunstler (1919-1995) was one of the most reviled figures of the 20th Century.

He was an attorney who not only represented controversial causes and unpopular people, but his approach in the courtroom involved exposing the racism and classicism permeating the legal justice system.

Always ahead of his time, Kunstler’s lifelong commitment to civil rights began when he went to Mississippi to defended Freedom Riders being arrested for trying to integrate lunch counters and other public accommodations.

No hypocrite, he cared just as much about equality in his hometown of Rye, New York, where he successfully sued on behalf of a Black couple trying to move into the lily-white enclave in 1960.

Over the course of his career, his services were retained by individuals across a wide and diverse political spectrum, including Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, Abbie Hoffman, the American Indian Movement, Adam Clayton Powell, and the Berrigan brothers.

But he really first became a household name in his own right during the trial of the Chicago 8 arrested in the wake of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. That’s when he grew his hair long to match the manes of the hippies being railroaded, and when he was held in contempt of court for calling the judge a bigot.

Kunstler hated racism, and fundamental to his political philosophy was the notion that “lawyers shouldn’t be immune from the oppression” affecting their clients. Consequently, he gave his all, and was willing to put his own life on the line.

Unfortunately, this approach took a toll on his family, especially his daughters, Emily and Sarah, the co-directors of William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe.

In this bittersweet bio-pic they not only recount their father’s exploits, but how they had to grow up with the specter of daily death threats and demonstrators in front of their Manhattan townhouse.

For instance, their father would only be posthumously vindicated for his spirited representation of innocent Harlem teens accused of raping the Central Park jogger. It is of little comfort now that they were belatedly vindicated after serving lengthy prison terms because at the time of the trial the boys had been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion by everyone from Mayor Koch to Donald Trump who called for the death penalty in a full page ad in the New York Times.

A very moving tribute to an unappreciated hero who spent his life as a tireless defender of the defenseless. 

Excellent (4 stars). Unrated. Running time: 85 minutes. Studio: Arthouse Films. 

Editor's Note: Please see announcement about planned November 7 protest march in front of Trump building 
To see a trailer for William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, visit:

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