The most hated and loved lawyer in America captured through the lens and mouths of his two daughters. Tonight, P.O.V. airs William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, a documentary directed by sisters Emily and Sarah Kunstler, that chronicles the rise of their father as an activist lawyer (check local listings here).
A self-described radical, Kunstler was one of the best-known civil rights attorneys in American history. He came from a privileged background and settled as a lawyer in Westchester County in the 1950s, setting up a small practice with his family. But Kunstler cut his teeth in the 1960s, representing freedom riders in Mississippi on behalf of the ACLU.
His daughters refer to him as a “silver tongued, pied piper,” who could charm a jury and bring national attention to underserved members of society. Kunstler passionately battled for the demands of the American Indian Movement in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and later, the inmates of Attica prison.
It was his handling of the Chicago Seven case in 1969, however, that made him famous. Kunstler represented seven individuals charged with inciting race riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He sparred openly with the judge and prosecutor and was cited for contempt, nearly facing an unprecedented four years in prison.
His relentless defense of the underdog was questioned late in his career when he chose to represent figures who had been demonized in the press. His decision to stand behind terror suspects, mafia members and cop killers in court tarnished his public image.
Emily and Sarah Kunstler are better equipped than anyone to relay the story behind their father and they invite us into a world only they could know. Part eulogy, part biography, Disturbing the Universe is an arresting portrayal of a fascinating American life.
After the broadcast be sure to participate in a live chat with the filmmakers Emily and Sarah Kunstler here. The online conversation will begin at 11:30p EST.
Read additional coverage of the film and filmmakers from a recent piece in the New Yorker Magazine.