Directed by: Jennifer M. Kroot.
George Takei is an icon to many because of his role as Sulu on the original Star Trek series – and the movies that ran for years after. But Takei is more than simply Sulu – he was a Japanese American actor in an era where the only roles for them were stereotypes, most of them offensive, who still managed to conduct himself with dignity in his roles. He is a survivor of one of the most shameful chapters in American history – when he, and all other Japanese Americans, were rounded up and placed in internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor – and while he has never forgotten that experience, it hasn’t stopped him for loving America. And in the last decade, he has become an outspoken proponent for marriage equality – after coming of the closet that he stayed in for decades in order to protect his career. He has faced so much negativity in his life that the fact that he seems so positive, so upbeat, so willing to laugh, to poke fun of himself and his image, is miraculous.
The documentary To Be Takei, directed by Jennifer M. Kroot, looks at Takei’s life and covers the major bases in it. It is entertaining, because Takei is entertaining – always an engaging subject for the camera. It’s also entertaining because Takei’s husband, Brad, seems like his complete opposite – and yet they fit together perfectly. They bicker and argue just like any other old, married couple – because after more than 25 years together, that’s just what they are. The movie looks at his legacy – both onscreen and off – and what he has meant to future generations of Asian actors, who looked to him as one of the only role models they had growing up, and the gay community he is so passionately involved in now. And it constantly refers back to his time in the Japanese internment camp – something that has profoundly shaped his life.
To Be Takei falls into the same trap that many documentaries that focus on one celebrity do – that it is so enamored with its subject that it doesn’t really dig deep enough into who that celebrity is. There are some tougher questions that could have been asked of Takei that the documentary doesn’t really do (for instance – did he ever consider not accepting the award for the Japanese emperor when they denied his husband’s access to the ceremony?). The movie was made with Takei’s full co-operation, of course, and becomes more of what Takei wants it to be – and how he wants to be portrayed –than anything else.
This is less of a problem with Takei than it is for many other celebrities, because Takei really does appear to be a truly great person – one who isn’t afraid to speak his mind, and address his past – and even to criticize it (he speaks with regret about doing a couple of Jerry Lewis movies early in his career, where he played offensive stereotypes. Strangely though, he doesn’t have a bad word to say about John Wayne – and his own role in Wayne’s offensive The Green Berets (and the movie doesn’t press him too hard). The movie addresses the tension between Takei and co-star William Shatner – but doesn’t press either of them too hard on it.
Overall, To Be Takei is an entertaining documentary about an icon – both as an icon and as a person. Yes, I wish it had of pressed further. It isn’t a great doc, like 20,000 Days on Earth about Nick Cave or Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me were earlier this year. But it’s a fun one – and I’m not going to complain too much about that.