Back in the late seventies or early eighties when I was working as a journalist in Washington, D.C., I covered a press conference in which the famed radical activist lawyer William Kunstler was a featured performer. I use the word “performer” advisedly because that was my impression of the guy in person: He was putting on a show, and a show that was more or less about William Kunstler. He postured and preened and showed a generally high regard for himself. I have no recollection of what cause the press conference was promoting, just an image of a sixties icon in the flesh.
That performance left me with a low regard for the man who was most famous for being the lead counsel in the bombastic Chicago Seven trial, in which a group of radical antiwar activists (Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, et al.) were accused of inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
My feelings about Kunstler, strangely enough, were shared to a degree by his two youngest daughters, Emily and Sarah Kunstler (above ), the offspring of his second marriage—the one that came after he left his first wife and children and his run-of-the-mill law practice to wade hip deep into left-wing legal activism.
The girls were born in 1976 and 1978, when their father was 57 and 59 years old. As young girls, they idolized their father; but as they grew up, their opinion of their flamboyant, media-hungry father changed, mainly because of his penchant for “defending bad people, ” alleged rapists, terrorists, and organized crime figures.
“At some point, Emily Kunstler says, “he stopped standing for anything.”
The two women do an excellent job telling their father’s life story (he died in 1994) in William Kunstler : Disturbing the Universe, a documentary that Sarah Kunstler wrote and that she and her sister produced and directed. We get the details of William K’s life, including his service in the Pacific as an Army officer in World War II during which he was awarded the Bronze Star. The film, naturally enough, focuses on his work in the sixties and seventies when he became a nationally known figure.
It’s a personal film and it works on that level—the story of two bright, accomplished young women coming to terms with their famous father’s conflicted legacy.