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To be Takei (2014)

| September 1, 2014 | 0 Comments

George Takei probably has more of a presence social media than anyone else his age. At 77, he has become a ubiquitous fixture of both Facebook and Twitter so much so that he is probably more prolific and well-known now than he was in the 40 years that he spent being billed fifth in his most famous role as Mr. Sulu on the original “Star Trek” TV show.

For those who only know Takei as Sulu, the documentary To Be Takei comes as sort of a cold water treatment. It is a history lesson, the fascinating story of a man who fought a personal battle on three fronts, first as an Asian-American locked away in one of FDR’s internment camps with his family during World War II which subsequently cost them their home and business; then later as an actor trying to break away from the Asian stereotypes he was forced to play; and finally, attempting to keep his acting career going while hiding the fact that he was gay.  Several times throughout this documentary, he returns to the memories of the Japanese Internment Camps and reminds us “I remember those barbed-wire fences.” Based on his experience, we gather that he means this both literally and metaphorically.

So it is sort of fitting that now, at 77, George Takei is as happy as anyone of any age. Flashbacks to his early struggles are juxtaposed with his present-day life with his business partner Brad Altman whom he married in 2008. They’re complete opposites – George is impulsive and unpredictable while Brad is fussy and organized – they come off, well, like an old married couple.  George laughs a lot, and jokes about some of his own misfortunes. He’s not shy about his orientation (he refuses to call it a lifestyle) and, admittedly, some of his divulged sexual history gets a little TMI.

The movie is very adamant about showing us that, despite his struggles, George Takei didn’t simply sit on the canvas and let his roadblocks define him. In moving past the Asian stereotype to get his acting career going, he found work in 1966 on a Wagon Train-type television series called “Star Trek” in which he was cast in a key role, not in a servile position, but as the helmsman of the U.S.S. Enterprise – of this, Takei jokes the he helped to break the stereotype about bad Asian drivers. On the front of his sexual orientation, he became an activist, helping to pass California’s Equal Rights Marriage Bill. On the issue of his family’s incarceration, he responded by getting the United States government to apologize for its wrong-doings.

Of course, that’s not all that the movie is about. Between the activism and the politics, George Takei still finds time to embrace the geeksphere, visiting one convention and then another, one day in Nashville, then in some Podunk town nobody ever heard of. He’s prolific and we see very open interviews with him deflating Howard Stern’s barbs about his sexuality, and later planning a bizarre, but well-meaning, musical called “Allegiance” about his imprisonment. His former “Star Trek” cast members are befuddled by his career second wind, including an ebullient Nichelle “Uhura” Nichols, a down-cast Walter “Chekov” Keonig, a sort-of distant Leonard Nimoy, and of course Shatner who seems to barely remember George or anything about him (he comes off in this film like a jerk). The relationship between Shatner and Takei is prickly at best. Driving past a billboard featuring The Shat with tape over his mouth, Takei scoffs “as it should be.”

To Be Takei is interesting if a bit conventional. As filmmaking it’s not ground-breaking, but getting to know the life and times of George Takei is a fascinating ride. You’re happy to get to know him beyond his signature role, and he makes us all with that we could be as happy and jovial when we reach his age.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2014) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary