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What motivates an attorney to defend the worst of the worst—those accused of terrorism to rape to cold-blooded murder? That question is at the heart of William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, a documentary produced and directed by the activist lawyer’s daughters, Sarah and Emily Kunstler, in an attempt to figure out how their father progressed from a fist-pumping civil-rights supporter to a man who, in narrator Emily’s words, “finally lost his mind” and whose regard from his family diminished as the death threats increased.
The biggest disappointment of the documentary is that the Kunstlers never really offer an explanation. Instead, we see a history of the William Kunstler, a liberal who was “radicalized” by his experience defending the Chicago Seven, the group accused of conspiring to incite a riot at 1968’s Democratic National Convention. He felt compelled to defend the seemingly defenseless, particularly minorities, but also those pre-convicted by public opinion such as the “wolf pack” of teens accused of raping and beating a Central Park jogger in 1989. He publically embraced John Gotti and wrote sonnets about the O.J. Simpson case. Eventually, a commentator speculates, Kunstler got so used to being in the spotlight that it no longer mattered to him how he got there.
Kunstler was adamant about teaching his daughters about justice, particularly pushing the theory that all whites were racists and that they needed to question the prejudices that might lie deep within themselves. “As long as there is prejudice, there is no such thing as a fair trial,” he’d say. He’d also tell his family that everyone deserved a lawyer. But, as Emily admits, “We didn’t understand why that lawyer had to be our father.…Other children were frightened of ghosts and monsters,” she says in voiceover. “I feared the police, the president, and the FBI.”
Emily accuses her father of having eventually “stopped standing up for anything worth fighting for,” a rather wan conclusion, especially given a late scene that reveals the exoneration of one of the alleged Central Park rapists. It’s a victory, to be sure, but not one satisfying enough to demystify the man bearing the film’s title.