William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

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During the second half of the 20th century, William Kunstler was one of the most admired attorneys in America -- and one of the most hated. Kunstler was a man who thrived on controversial cases; in the 1960s, he specialized in defending clients who ran afoul of the law on civil rights and free speech issues, and he spoke on behalf of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Lenny Bruce, members of the Black Panther Party, Native American activists, and prisoner's rights groups. Kunstler found himself in the national media ...
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During the second half of the 20th century, William Kunstler was one of the most admired attorneys in America -- and one of the most hated. Kunstler was a man who thrived on controversial cases; in the 1960s, he specialized in defending clients who ran afoul of the law on civil rights and free speech issues, and he spoke on behalf of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Lenny Bruce, members of the Black Panther Party, Native American activists, and prisoner's rights groups. Kunstler found himself in the national media spotlight in 1969 when he defended "the Chicago Eight," activists who were accused of organizing riots during the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention; his flamboyant style in the courtroom fascinated the press, and some believe he soon became as interested in getting his name in the papers and his face on television as he was in the law. In his later years, Kunstler developed a reputation as a man who would defend clients no one else would touch, including drug dealers, accused rapists, organized crime figures, and suspected terrorists, though he remained a passionate advocate of the American legal system. Kunstler's daughters, Emily and Sarah, began asking their famous dad questions about his career and his ideals as children armed with a home movie camera, and they've used some of that footage -- along with vintage newsreels and interviews with Kunstler's friends, foes, and clients -- as the basis for the film William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, a biographical portrait of the man and his legacy. William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe received its world premiere at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
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Special Features

Additional interviews and speeches by William Kunstler; William Kunstler's performance at caroline's comedy club; Kunstler home movies; Courtroom audio and archival footage on the Chicago 8 trial, wounded knee, and attica; Interview with the filmmakers; Theatrical trailer
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Editorial Reviews

All Movie Guide - Nathan Southern
One would be hard-pressed to identify a more fascinating subject for a documentary than attorney William Kunstler 1919-1995, the love-him-or-hate-him, longhaired civil rights crusader at the center of the nonfiction film William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe. As written, shot, edited, and directed by two of the subject's daughters, 33-year-old Sarah and 31-year-old Emily Kunstler, this opus wisely undertakes a straightforward, linear approach to the litigator's complicated life. It begins with his childhood and chronicles his most publicized legal battles for the trial of the Chicago 7, the Attica prison rioters, the Native Americans at Wounded Knee, and others before moving, during its final third, into the phase of Kunstler's career that alienated just about everyone, including his family -- the years that found him defending accused terrorists, rapists, murderers, and anyone else generally cast out of mainstream America and buckling beneath the weight of social ignominy. Compositionally, the film soars. On their second directorial assignment, the Kunstler sisters do an absolutely masterful job of interpolating a wealth of archival and interview footage into the material, featuring such giants as former Black Panther Bobby Seale, attorney Alan Dershowitz, and broadcast journalist Phil Donahue. The structure functions in such a way that it manages to concurrently push the narrative forward and trace the ever-shifting public opinions directed toward Kunstler -- and that's an impressive feat. The filmmakers, however, are never quite content to leave the film on the level of a standard biographical documentary. Courtesy of their relationship with the subject, they also opt to graft a filial perspective onto the material. From the first frame, Emily and Sarah who take turns narrating periodically remind the audience of their early idolization of their dad, their hero worship upon learning of his early civil rights battles. That subjectivity is a lovely addition, and it adds an intriguing personal level that the documentary would have lost in the hands of other directors. But it grows potentially mesmerizing when the daughters begin to cite their subsequent emotional alienation and confusion regarding William's controversial choices later in life, especially the periodic ones that seemed to defy all logic and common sense such as his decision to defend a cat charged with crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, the greatest benefit one could ostensibly expect from this portion of the material -- the filmmakers using their personal connections to explore Kunstler's dark and complicated side on a deeper level than anyone outside of the family could -- receives only partial fulfillment here, and ends with a return to unbridled reverence of the subject in its revelation of a publicly vilified defendant's innocence. That pat ending represents a letdown, and it's also what holds the documentary back from perfection. Watching the film, one wonders if Emily and Sarah weren't somewhat afraid to go the distance by examining all of the implications attached to their father's later decisions including -- a major omission -- interviews with his opponents and detractors; the movie suffers for it to some degree. What counts, though, is that the two women have created a beautifully structured paean to their dad that successfully backs up many of its reverent claims with priceless footage of early civil rights battles. Regardless of one's political persuasion, the picture succeeds at moving one immeasurably with visual and aural testimonies of Kunstler's grandstanding for the abused, the disenfranchised, and the socially neglected. Even if the film falls short of unfettered brilliance, Kunstler surely would have been touched and humbled by his daughters' treatment of him here, and one can walk away feeling gratified at the film's existence -- this was a story that needed to be told.
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Product Details

  • Release Date: 4/27/2010
  • UPC: 767685212387
  • Original Release: 2009
  • Rating:

  • Source: New Video Group
  • Presentation: Wide Screen
  • Time: 1:26:00
  • Format: DVD
  • Sales rank: 71,977

Cast & Crew

Performance Credits
William Kunstler
Dennis Banks Participant
Clyde Bellecourt Participant
Rev. Daniel Berrigan Participant
Herman Badillo Participant
Harry Belafonte Participant
Phil Donahue Participant
Jimmy Breslin Participant
Alan Dershowitz Participant
Elizabeth Fink Participant
Jean Fritz Participant
Karin Kunstler-Goldman Participant
Tom Hayden Participant
Bruce Jackson Participant
Gregory Joey Johnson Participant
Ron Kuby Participant
Margaret Ratner Kunstler Participant
Nancy Kurshan Participant
Gerald Lefcourt Participant
Rev. Vernon C. Mason Participant
Bill Means Participant
Michael Ratner Participant
Paul Red Participant
Yusef Salaam Participant
Bobby Seale Participant
Barry Slotnick Participant
Lynne Stewart Participant
M. Wesley Swearingen Participant
Madonna Thunderhawk Participant
Leonard Weinglass Participant
Technical Credits
Emily Kunstler Director, Editor, Producer
Sarah Kunstler Director, Producer, Screenwriter
Tracy Bunting Associate Producer
Jeremiah Dickey Animator
Sally Jo Fifer Executive Producer
Vanessa Hope Executive Producer
Emily Hubley Animator
Shahzad Ali Ismaily Score Composer
Susan Korda Producer
Andrew Lutsky Associate Producer
Jesse Moss Producer
Vanessa Wanger Executive Producer
Brett Wiley Cinematographer
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Scene Index

Disc #1 -- William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe
1. David Versus Goliath [9:15]
2. An Alternate Universe [3:11]
3. Action is Everything [4:22]
4. A White Man of Privilege [3:25]
5. The Only Absolute is Justice [2:12]
6. The Government Will Stop at Nothing [12:14]
7. If Resistance Doesn't Work, Revolt! [1:29]
8. 4500 Rounds of Ammunition [13:39]
9. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee [9:19]
10. Wake Up Screaming [6:47]
11. Hated In New York City [9:36]
12. There is No Such Thing as a Fair Trial [10:07]
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Disc #1 -- William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe
      Audio Files 85 Min
         Play All
         William Kunstler on the Chicago 8 Trial 14 Min (Pacifica Radio Archives) 14 Min
         William Kunstler From Inside Wounded Knee, 3/9/73 1 Min
         William Kunstler On Wounded Knee, 1/23/74 (Pacifica Radio Archives) 4 Min
         William Kunstler Speaks at UCSB, 2/26/70 (KCSB 91.9FM Archive) 44 Min
         Leonard Weinglass on Kunstler's Convictions (Freedom Archives) 3 Min
         Chicago 8 Courtroom Audio:
            Bobby Seal, 10/30/69 (Freedom Archives) 7 Min
            William Kunstler, 2/2/70 (Freedom Archives) 5 Min
            William Kunstler, 11/26/69 (Center For Constitutional Rights Archive) 3 Min
            William Kunstler, 12/30/69 (Center For Constitutional Rights Archive) 2 Min
            William Kunstler, 1/14/70 (Center For Constitutional Rights Archive) 2 Min
      Bonus Footage 91 Min
         Play All
         William Kunstler on the Attica Massacre, 9/71 (From Portable Channel/Visual Studies Workshop) 9 Min
         Attica Siege Footage 9/13/71 (From the New York State Archives) 8 Min
         William Kunstler Speaks at the SUNY Buffalo School of Architecture & Planning, 5/13/95 31 Min
         William Kunstler at Caroline's Comedy Club, 8/10/95 (Produced By Randy Credico) 19 Min
         Kunstler Family Home Movies:
            1950s 5 Min
            1980s 2 Min
         Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler on Democracy Now! 17 Min (With Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez)
      Theatrical Trailer 2 Min
      Join the Conspiracy
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Customer Reviews

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