William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (2009)





For William Kunstler, the wild-haired, radical civil rights lawyer with the raspy voice who became a left-wing political star in the late 1960s, Michelangelo’s statue of David symbolized how he saw himself. A photograph of the statue that morphs into a drawing of David twirling his slingshot is a recurrent image in the crisply made, largely admiring documentary “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe.” To him, it embodied the moment everyone faces at some time or other when one has to stand up to injustice or keep silent.

A refresher course on the history of American left-wing politics in the 1960s and ’70s as well as an affectionate personal biography of Kunstler, “Disturbing the Universe” was directed by Sarah and Emily Kunstler, his two daughters from his second marriage. Although the film, with its home movies and family reminiscences, portrays him as a heroic crusader for justice, it is by no means a hagiography of a man who earned widespread contempt late in his career for defending pariahs.

The metamorphosis of Kunstler, who died in 1995, from armchair liberal to middle-aged hippie revolutionary reflected the volatile political climate of the era. A general-practice lawyer who lived in Westchester County, he became involved in the civil rights movement through a local housing lawsuit in 1960; the following year he flew to Mississippi at the behest of Rowland Watts, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, to support the Freedom Riders.

Later he defended the Catonsville Nine — Roman Catholic activists, including Daniel and Philip Berrigan — who burned draft files to protest the Vietnam War. He achieved national notoriety as the lead counsel in the theatrical trial of the Chicago Seven, who were accused of conspiracy and inciting to riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.


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