William Kuntsler: The Defense Cannot Rest

Storied lawyer William Kunstler is cross-examined by his filmmaker daughters


| May-June 2010


To read a full interview with Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler at  utne.com/Kunstler . 

Emily Kunstler   and   Sarah Kunstler  are proud of their late father, and understandably so. He was William M. Kunstler, the defense attorney who became a progressive hero in the ’60s and ’70s for defending civil rights protesters and antiwar activists, disenfranchised prisoners and sovereignty-seeking American Indians.

But Emily and Sarah are also critical of their father—and again, understandably. He also defended terrorists, cop shooters, and Mafia masterminds.

This high-profile paradox is at the heart of William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, a documentary film directed by the Kunstler sisters. The carefully constructed movie manages to be several things at once. It is an ode to a father’s life, yet it dares to question his motives. It is a documentary, but also a biography of a firebrand lawyer and a family memoir. And it traces several pivotal episodes in U.S. social history without feeling like a lecture.

William Kunstler built his formidable reputation before Emily and Sarah were born by fighting on the legal front lines of key civil rights and antiwar court cases. He defended the Freedom Riders, the black activists who defied segregation laws. He defended the prisoners who took over Attica Prison in a bid for better conditions. He defended the American Indian leaders who were tried for the 1973 incidents at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. And in one of his more famous turns, he was the lawyer for the antiwar activists known as the Chicago Eight in a trial that turned into absurdist political theater.

The film’s synopsis of these milestone events is a power-packed treatise on the 1960s that, refreshingly, is not about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Absent the usual cultural commentary, it’s amazing and spine-tingling to see the Freedom Riders take their places at a whites-only lunch counter, police storm Attica in a deadly surge, and—in courtroom illustrations—Black Panther leader Bobby Seale bound and gagged in front of judge and jury at his own trial.