Our Great Summer Reading and Viewing series continues with a FREE—how about that?—documentary tonight on PBS’ “POV” (“Point of View”) series: “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe.”
Just joining us? Our “Great Summer” series so far: “Crown of Aleppo,” “Science Vs. Religion,” “Belief,” “Apparition,” “Burma VJ,” “Facets World Cup,” “Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth” and “The Lonely Polygamist.” And, remember to come back on Wednesday for our interview with Brady Udall about that funny and provocative new novel on polygamy that combines “Big Love” themes with Brady’s own quirky storytelling talents.
Review of PBS “POV” documentary, “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe”:
As Charles Dickens would say: William Kunstler is dead, to begin with. Those of us who recall the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras may have missed that the era’s iconic crusading lawyer died at age 76 in 1995.
If you are familiar with the bold thrust of his great hairy visage and his razor-sharp critique of American injustice, then you might expect him to pop up again at any moment. Who knows? Given Kunstler’s steel will, he could pop up like Jacob Marley someday and rattle a few chains.
In fact, that’s pretty much what “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” will do tonight. Now, if you’re among the millions who loathed Kunstler, then this might be a visitation a bit like Scrooge’s chat with Marley. You may choose to close the bed curtains and skip this documentary entirely. However, even if you are among the Kunstler haters, you just might want to let your blood simmer for an hour tonight by watching PBS’ free showing of the documentary made by Kunstlers’ daughters.
After all, who can resist an opening scene taken from grainy home movies in which two cherubic girls jump up and down and proclaim: “Now, as a premiere, we will have William M. Kunstler—yes, the real William M. Kunstler—appear and talk about his life. Our Dad! Yaaaay!”
And Kunstler? He’s a 20th century American hero to millions. Remember that raised fist? Remember his classic lines? “All power to the people! Right on! Do it!” And: “The only thing that is going to move this country is you!”
Why is this film more than mere nostalgia? You may not recall the other headlines—the headlines from later in Kunstler’s life in which he defended apparently reprehensible criminals. Accused killers. Accused rapists. Men accused of hate crimes. That’s the era when the two daughters who produced this documentary were coming of age and, from their perspective, their heroic Dad in those early home movies had become at least a puzzle—and at worst a confusing and even a frightening figure. Things turned around in the Kunstler household, the daughters tell us, “when we realized he was defending bad people.”
Daughter Emily tells us that toward the end: “Dad’s clients gave us nightmares. He told us that everyone deserves a lawyer, but sometimes we didn’t understand why that lawyer had to be our father. When I was 10 years old, I remember pleading with him not to represent a teenager accused of a gang rape.” Later, she adds: “I lived in constant fear. … I had always defended my father to the kids at school. This time, I couldn’t find the words.” And: “Dad taught us to always stand up to injustice. But at some point, he stopped standing for anything worth fighting for.”
We see film clips of other notable figures from that later era, including New York’s Mayor Ed Koch, making it clear that Kunstler was wrong to defend those final clients. Koch says, “I don’t want to undrstand someone who commits this kind of horror. I want him punished.” Meanwhile, Donald Trump bought full-page ads urging the return of the death penalty just so New Yorkers would see these perpetrators killed.
But, this documentary’s real value is that it doesn’t let us so easily dismiss Kunstler’s decision to represent apparently evil clients in his later years. Why did he make those final choices? Searching for an answer, the film takes us way back—waaay back into our shared history as Americans in the early 20th century. We learn that Kunstler had what amounted to an entire adult lifetime as a suburban attorney with a first wife and a first set of daughters. During that first life, he even authored a book about the technical details of litigating auto accidents. He might have vanished without a trace in American history books.
What drove him to become the prophetic hero to many in the 1960s and 1970s? The film argues that Kunstler, born in 1919, remembered the scars of injustice that marked many Americans in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. He grew up in a fairly well-to-do but racist family in which his parents insisted that their black servants use separate facilities. In World War II, he engaged in heavy combat in the Pacific Theater and was wounded in action—and was bothered to see black soldiers who also served the U.S. treated as second-class citizens in the post-war world. When the ACLU invited him to visit Mississippi in 1961, he stepped into an entirely new world of possible actions to right some of the injustices he had seen. Defending Freedom Riders in Mississippi radicalized Kunstler and awakened his discomfort at decades of systematic injustice suffered by African Americans in the South, the North, the U.S. Army—and, in fact, nationwide. As he transformed himself into a radical prophet, J. Edgar Hoover opened an FBI investigation of his new “Commie pattern.”
The film argues that Kunstler’s life, in fact, didn’t change dramatically in his final years. Instead, the film argues, Kunstler continued to radicalize his views until he came to see the entire American system of justice—including news media and the power of political leaders, activists and corporate bosses—as deeply unfair to accused men and women, especially those who were poor or who came from minority groups.
Even the most reprehensible defendants need a lawyer to defend their rights, Kunstler argues in the film, because the American system is not impartial for many defendants. Now, this may be too far for many of us to follow Kunstler’s thinking about justice. Clearly, his final choice of clients was way too far for Alan Dershowitz, who appears in the film to criticize Kunstler’s final years. It may be too far for Kunstler’s daughters to follow their father.
So, watch the film. After all, it’s a story that reflects our own shared American history.
See what you think.
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CHECK LOCAL LISTINGS: This PBS website where you can check listings in your part of the U.S.
Read along this week for more in our Great Summer Reading and Viewing series! And don’t miss Wednesday’s interview with Brady Udall about “The Lonely Polygamist.”
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)