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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

MOVIE REVIEW
William Kunstler: Disturbing The Universe
Lionheart For Justice, With An Unyielding Spirit



William Kunstler, with daughters Emily and Sarah, in 1980.      Maddy Miller

By Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler produce and direct "William Kunstler: Disturbing The Universe", a documentary about their attorney-father's fight for human rights for those most of the silent (and vocal) majority in American society despised.  The film opens on Friday in San Francisco at Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinema.

Mr. Kunstler, who passed away in 1995, defended such notorious figures as the Chicago Seven, El Sayeed Nosair and numerous others including the young men whose convictions and prison sentences in the Central Park Jogger 1989 attack case were overturned in 2002 after another man confessed to beating and raping the jogger, Tricia Meili, who came forward around that time to talk about her ordeal.  (Full disclosure: I had given some personal support to the families of the innocent young men during their criminal trials in New York City 20 years ago, and now as an attorney understand just how difficult defending the young men in a courtroom had to be in such a hateful climate.)

"Disturbing The Universe" capsulate two daughters' struggle to understand what galvanized their dad to fight legal battles for the highly unpopular.  The crux of the reason, Mr. Kunstler recalls in interviews conducted years ago by his young daughters, is the inspiration he received from looking at the sculpture of Michelangelo's David, weighing the moments of decision just before throwing a rock at Goliath.  It's a principle that formed the bedrock of Mr. Kunstler's thirst for justice for all. 

On a more personal note the sister filmmakers also acknowledge the teaching by their father that "all white people are racist, even you," and it's a lesson that they as then-very young white girls try to process.  They grapple with their own dislike of the accused people (mostly black and Native American) that Mr. Kunstler stood up for, though at least on film there aren't any traces of resentment or anger about their father's activism or his being away from them at times or being mired in legal work.

The film looks at Mr. Kunstler's wins (such as the right to burn the U.S. flag, and the acquittal of New York cop-shooter Larry Davis) and bitter losses in the courtroom and beyond (the murders at Attica State Prison in 1971), as well as Mr. Kunstler's transformation from courtroom rights ambassador to activist-attorney for the marginalized and oppressed.  The daughters reveal that the climate under which they grew up was uneasy at best, witnessing protests outside their home, and being afraid of the FBI, which surveilled their father for years.

William Kunstler's connection to the everyman and outsider is examined via archival news footage, home video and interlaced with his upbringing in a racist household in Connecticut, his experiences as an Army soldier during World War Two and his personal relationships but the documentary is mostly about the work of a man who worked even harder as he himself became less popular.  Many public figures weigh in on Mr. Kunstler, some fondly, a few not so much.  Mr. Kunstler is hardly portrayed as a figure with vanity, though his humor and compassion ring through loud and clear. 

Sharp, sobering and insightful, "Disturbing The Universe" celebrates yet doesn't lionize Mr. Kunstler, and the film is more balanced than you might expect despite the close personal connection of its directors.  It's an important and highly relevant work which may prompt you to ask: where are the William Kunstlers of this new century? 

With: Reverend C. Vernon Mason, Phil Donahue, Lynne Stewart, Herman Badillo, Yusuf Salaam, Jimmy Breslin, Michael Ratner, Harry Belafonte, Father Daniel Berrigan, Clyde Bellecourt, Alan Dershowitz, Elizabeth Fink, Jean Fritz, Karen Kunstler Goldman, Tom Hayden, Bobby Seale, Ron Kuby, Barry Slotnick Madonna Thunderhawk, Bill Means, Margaret Ratner Kunstler, Gerald Lefcourt, Len Weinglass and many more.

“William Kunstler: Disturbing The Universe" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America.  The film’s running time is one hour and 26 minutes and opens on Friday, November 20 in San Francisco at Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinema

Read more movie reviews and stories from Omar here

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