'The Trial of the Chicago 7': Who was the real William Kunstler? Lawyer's love for publicity masked a hard edge
The Aaron Sorkin-written and directed political drama, 'The Trial of the Chicago 7', is finally on Netflix. The film had been in development by Sorkin for more than a decade and after its theatrical release was hampered by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which is why it has found itself on the streaming platform. The movie focuses on the infamous Chicago conspiracy trial that took place in 1969 in the aftermath of the Chicago protests of the previous year, amid the Democratic National Convention.
Eight people were originally charged by the US federal government with conspiracy, inciting to riot, and other charges — Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins). Later, Bobby Seale was given a mistrial.
Presiding over the case was Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) who was shown to be openly antagonistic towards the defendants. After the trial was over, the Court of Appeals had found that Hoffman had often resorted to undermining the defense team in front of the jury. Nevertheless, the defense attorneys, William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman) went on to become known for the trial and in later years, for defending those who were marginalized. The disruptive antics of the defendants and Kunstler’s spirited battles with Judge Hoffman during the Chicago Seven trial led to hundreds of contempt citations. Kunstler himself was sentenced to four years and 13 days, but most of the counts were dismissed on appeal, and he was not imprisoned.
Kunstler especially was known as a left-wing lawyer, often taking on clients who were unpopular and disliked. He was often criticized as a “radical lawyer” and a “publicity hound”. But Kunstler was also known to be a staunch advocate of the constitutional right that everyone had the right to adequate legal representation. In his book, ‘My Life as a Radical Lawyer’, Kunstler wrote, “The judicial system in this country is often unjust and will punish those whom it hates and fears.” Kunstler graduated from Yale University in 1941 and served with the Army Signal Corps in the Pacific in World War II, rising to the rank of major and earning a Bronze Star. After the war, he attended Columbia Law School and graduated in 1949.
In the 1960s he became one of the principal lawyers representing the Freedom Riders, men and women who journeyed through the South desegregating public bus facilities. He also represented David Hampton, who posed as the son of actor Sidney Poitier, about which he wrote in his book, “I was also a bit angry that these white liberals would take in a black man when they believed him to be the son of a famous person but kick him out when they discovered he was just an ordinary guy. David had challenged their liberalism, and they had failed the test.”
Kunstler represented a variety of clients, including but not limited to, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Assata Shakur, the Revolutionary Communist Party, Catonsville Nine, Black Panther Party, Weather Underground Organization, the Attica Prison rioters, and the American Indian Movement. He also represented H Rap Brown aka Jamil Al-Amin, who was the first person to be charged under the Anti-Riot Act. He also represented Yusef Salaam, one of five Black teenagers accused of raping and severely beating a young woman in the notorious Central Park jogger case of 1989. Throughout his career, Kunstler remained staunchly committed to defending people and movements who were widely unpopular. In the fall of 1992, Kunstler returned to New York Law School to teach a seminar on constitutional law. Three years later, he died of a heart attack.
‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ is now streaming on Netflix.