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This film by Kunstler's daughters Emily and Sarah, is a wonderful memorial to their father. Kunstler, along with Noam Chomsky Fred Hampton, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Huey P. Newton, was one of the twentieth century's giants in terms of fighting for the rights of those oppressed. To give recognition to Sam Melville and all the other martyrs of Attica, to give thanks to the Estate of Nicholas Ray, to give recognition to those who led the insurrection at Wounded Knee, seems to me already sufficient justification for this film. Joris Ivens would have been happy to have made this film, as he clearly would have recognized Kunstler's importance. A magnificent film. Power to the People!
This film is first-rate, very thoughtfully written and elegantly made. Very inspiring. Its strengths are many. There's no fluff, despite its being a valentine from these sisters to their dad. It manages to convey the complexity of their feelings and knowledge of him as a man and of the work he did. Remarkably, as busy as he obviously was, he truly loved these girls and his wife with all his heart. It charts his transformation from Long Island lawyer to national institution through the Civil Rights and antiwar movements and his later work as criminal attorney for the most reviled defendants around. The girls themselves had strong misgivings about these later cases, as did his wife, but he persisted, and in one important case was vindicated after his death. We don't see lawyers like this these days. America has become so pacified that Bush and Cheney can steal two elections and the people won't even get off the couch. Idealism has been replaced by cynical, money-grubbing materialism. This picture reminds us of what constitutes a life well lived.
A documentary about the lawyer William M. Kuntsler made by his two
daughters, Emily and Sarah, who look on his story with a vision that's
both honest and passionate. The result is a wonderfully three-
dimensional picture. This deserves comparison with the Daniel Ellsberg
documentary, 'The Most Dangerous Man in America,' and the various films
about Noam Chomsky.
I missed this film when it showed last year, but someone called my attention to it and I found it on Netflix Instant Play. Kuntsler was an ubiquitous figure in the legal battles of American in the second half of the twentieth century and absolutely central to the world of social and political action of the Sixties and the Seventies. When I was young and first living in California in those days, it seemed few important controversies came up without the involvement of William Kuntsler. He was the number one civil rights lawyer, synonymous with civil rights. It's seemed essential to hear his name in relation to any important political case. I love the lady from Des Plains in this film who was on the Chicago Seven trial jury and saus she learned to dislike her government when she saw the humiliating treatment of Bobby Seale in the courtroom. While the Freedom Marches converted Kuntsler into an activist lawyer, Chicago turned him into a leading figure who sought out the trials and issues of the century.
The revolt at Attica ("insurrection" Walter Cronkite calls it) and the subsequent assault and massacre have been covered in more detail in other films. The sisters are with William Kuntsler on that and respectful of the prisoners who lost their lives. This is admirable. Kuntsler was there when anything happened. This kind of person is often controversial. He might seem to be a publicity seeker. He wanted to be where the action was. He was intoxicated with the spirit of the Sixties. The Freedom Riders. The Chicago Seven. Attica. Wounded Knee. The film's coverage of Wounded Knee is very interesting. Fascinating that in his daughter's view, while Attica tore Bill apart, Wounded Knee made him whole again. Each of the major cases touched on in the film is worthy of thorough study, Chicago, Attica, Wounded Knee, the Central Park rape case all are profoundly significant, and Kuntsler was there.
I didn't at first like the way the sisters began, with their disenchantment and their picture of Kunstler's seeming decline in his later years into defending bad people. But then I can see they wanted to put that out of the way, and also prepare us for the arc of his life. After Wounded Knee, an epiphany and climax, there is a certain decline. He defends flag burning before the Supreme Court, but then he is defending rapists and drug dealers. But he is still a great lawyer. The simplicity and clarity of his presentations is impressive. At his funeral Native Americans beat drums and chant in the cathedral.
Was he wrong to defend Nasair, the killer of Rabbi Kahane? Kahane was a hero to Jews, but also an extremist; he appeals to right wing Jews, not liberals. Anyway, everyone has a right to a lawyer. The most dramatic vindication of Kuntsler's seemingly blind defenses of the seemingly indefensible is the vindication of Yusef Salaam, the supposed Central Park "Wolf Pack" rapist who served nearly seven years in prison and then was vindicated. The public, the mayor, Donald Trump, and the cops didn't want to know the facts. The five accused were guilty and should be put away. And then Salaam is vindicated. Nice placement of this information in the film. This is a very well-paced 85 minutes. A good basic introduction to one of the key figures of the law, politics, and society of his period of American life.
Don't let the fact that the documentary "William Kunstler: Disturbing
the Universe" was produced, written and directed by his two daughters,
Emily and Sarah, lead you to assume that this is just some reflexive
puff-piece on the man and his life. Indeed, with a scrupulous desire
for balance and fairness, the filmmakers acknowledge the controversial
nature of their father and his work, while at the same time evincing
the love and affection any daughters would feel for a devoted parent.
In fact, they even admit that, as youngsters, the sisters often
disagreed with the types of cases he was willing to take on and the
types of people he was willing to defend (gang-rapists, assassins,
Islamic terrorists), and often lived in fear for their own safety due
to those choices. But with maturity comes the longer view, and now the
Kunstler girls are able to appreciate more fully their father's
unwavering belief that true justice can be achieved only when it
applies to everyone equally - those we love and admire as well as those
we hate and fear.
Kunstler was, of course, the civil rights attorney who became a household name when he served as lead counsel for the Chicago 7 in the late 1960s, an act for which he served several months in prison on charges of "contempt of court," a sentence that was later overturned. But it was this trial - and the obviously unjust way in which the defendants were treated (especially Bobby Seale) - that forever "radicalized" Kunstler, making him see the American legal system as a racist machine hell bent on discriminating against minorities and the poor and those who lacked favor in the eyes of society. After this crucial turning point, Kunstler dedicated his life and his career as a defense attorney to full-time anti-war and civil rights activism, which garnered him the near-constant attention of an ever-suspicious FBI. Kunstler was actively involved in trying to bring peaceful resolutions to the famous standoffs at Attica (where he clearly did not succeed) and Wounded Knee (where he did).
It was in the second half of his career, where, in his capacity as a criminal defense attorney for the city of New York, he began defending some pretty loathsome characters - he is even shown physically embracing John Gotti - that many of his former supporters, including his daughters, began to question his moral convictions. But Kunstler, who died in 1995, always maintained that every person accused of a crime was entitled to a vigorous defense, and it is this philosophy that ultimately won over many of his critics and even his daughters in the end.
A mixture of file footage and interviews with numerous people who both knew Kunstler personally or were deeply affected by his work, the documentary itself is fairly conventional in style and form, but its portrait of a man who insisted, often at great personal risk to himself and his family, that all people be given a fair trial - and of his daughters' growing understanding and eventual acceptance of what he was all about - makes it truly inspiring.
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