Onetime counterculture hero reexamined by his daughters

Attorney William Kunstler (right) at a 1970 rally for the Chicago Eight, whom he defended on charges from the 1968 Democratic Convention.
Attorney William Kunstler (right) at a 1970 rally for the Chicago Eight, whom he defended on charges from the 1968 Democratic Convention.
Posted: December 11, 2009

In the '60s and early '70S, attorney William Kunstler seemed to be everywhere that mattered: on the bus with Mississippi Freedom Riders; defending the Chicago Eight in the aftermath of bloody riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention; representing prisoners who took over Attica; negotiating a truce between American Indian radicals and the government at Wounded Knee. Famous for his long hair and loquacious summaries, Kunstler was a counterculture hero.

The clients he chose to defend in the late '70s and '80s, however, turned him from hero to pariah in many people's eyes: high-profile cases where he stood alongside accused cop-killers, gang rapists, terrorists, and mobsters. It was during this period, when Kunstler worked from his Greenwich Village townhouse, that his two daughters from his second marriage - Sarah and Emily, then in their teens - had to deal with the fallout from their father's controversial work: ridicule at school, protesters on their front stoop.

How could he defend these monsters, they wanted to know. Why was he putting himself, and his family, at risk?

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe finds the sisters still struggling with those questions. The sibling filmmakers, using a wealth of archival footage, news clips, home movies, and interviews, offer a portrait of a passionate liberal and maverick lawyer who bought into his own myth, to the detriment of his career and the dismay of his daughters. Kunstler died in 1995.

Like the documentaries My Architect (about Louis Kahn, by his son) and The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack (about Ramblin' Jack Elliott, by his daughter), William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe offers a deeply personal view of a larger-than-life figure. It's a view filtered through a prism of memory and emotion, but one well worth investigating.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea

at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/

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