Anyone who follows George Takei on Facebook, has tuned in to his frequent appearances on “The Howard Stern Show,” or marveled at one of his amazing Amazon reviews (seriously, look them up), knows that the former “Star Trek” actor lives life with an unprecedented amount of zippy good humor, especially for a man well into his seventies. And this isn’t even taking into account his tireless humanitarian efforts, mostly on the subject of gay rights. For a tiny, elderly, Japanese man, he’s also an unstoppable force of nature. In the new documentary “To Be Takei,” it becomes clear that Takei is a man who defies expectations and subverts stereotypes at virtually every turn. It’s just a shame the movie wasn’t as progressive as its subject.
Most will remember Takei as Sulu from the original “Star Trek” series, helming the starship Enterprise during the entire television run and a half-dozen feature film spin-offs. That character was incredibly important to the Asian American community; to see a face like his in such a prominent role left a lasting impact on countless viewers (both B.D. Wong and John Cho, who would go on to play Sulu in the two J.J. Abrams-helmed “Star Trek” adventures, powerfully recall what it was like to watch him on the series). Takei was an important component to “Star Trek”-creator Gene Roddenberry’s rainbow coalition of space explorers and broke down a number of stereotypes when it came to how Asians were portrayed on television. Takei, after all, should have known, since he was responsible for some of those questionable portrayals, both on television and in a pair of iffy Jerry Lewis comedies.
In the years since “Star Trek,” Takei has worked steadily, appearing regularly as a voice actor on everything from “Futurama” to “Adventure Time,” getting into the reality show game on things like the celebrity edition of Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice,” and popping up on insanely popular television series like “The Big Bang Theory.” Then there’s his gig on “The Howard Stern Show,” where he first made waves as a guest (in the early nineties) and now serves as a semi-regular announcer for the satellite radio series. As far as actors who appeared on the original series, it’s hard to think of another “Star Trek” actor who has worked so consistently since that show went off the air (Wiliam Shatner aside, obviously).
But these days, Takei’s main job seems to be that of an advocate. This mostly has to do with his work for gay rights. Takei, who has been active in the gay community since the seventies, finally came out of the closet publicly in 2005. (One of the funniest moments in the movie is an archival clip from “Entertainment Weekly” where they make Takei’s shrug-worthy admission seem shocking—complete with black-and-white imagery and intense voice over.) Since then, he has gone on to defend homosexuals’ right to marriage, married his longtime partner Brad Altman, and made several appearances on major news programs in response to many anti-gay kerfuffles in the public spotlight. The fact that Takei is always able to issue a rebuttal to these small-minded bigots, without slighting his humor and wit, is a testament to his seemingly endless reserve of patience.
The other humanitarian issue that Takei works tirelessly towards, and one that should be shocking to most, is awareness of the Japanese internment camps that the United States government set up after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Takei was sent with his family to one of the camps in the “swamps of Arkansas” when he was just a child, emerging when he was eight and returning to California. Not only does he speak out about this atrocity regularly (director Jennifer Kroot structures entire sequences of the movie as daisy-chained monologues from these public speeches), but he was also involved in extreme policy change. In 1981, during the congressional hearings on the issue, Takei’s testimony led directly to the redress being issued by Ronald Reagan.
“To Be Takei” manages the right balance of the personal and political, with as much screen time devoted to Takei’s relationship with Brad—a goofy, affable white guy who also serves as Takei’s business manager. He was instrumental in taking care of Takei’s terminally ill mother in the last years of her life, something that Takei seems genuinely taken aback by even today. In footage from their wedding (that both Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig attended), Takei’s vows are mostly taken up by his shock and admiration for Altman during that trying time.
As the movie progresses, and starts to follow Takei’s passion project, a musical dramatization of his time in the internment camp called “Allegiance,” it becomes more traditional and, unfortunately, square. Takei, the man, is a boundless ball of energy, zinging between important social issues and posting incredibly weird stuff on his Facebook page. But “To Be Takei,” with its combination of talking head interviews, historical footage, and slice-of-life material, occasionally runs out of steam, sputtering when it should surge. Of course, there are moments of flat-out genius, like when William Shatner claims openly that he “never knew” Takei, despite a staggering amount of time spent on set together (he also says that he wasn’t invited to Takei’s wedding, something that pretty much everyone refutes). But these moments, unfortunately, are few and far between. If you know anything about the man, which we’ll fully admit that we didn’t, you might find large sections of it redundant or dull.
That’s not to say that “To Be Takei” is a poor documentary; far from it. It’s a lot of fun to watch. And captures, to one degree or another, just how important Takei has been, both to popular culture and the political landscape something that should not be taken lightly. By the end of its slender 90-minute running time, though, you’ll wish that “To Be Takei” had been more like its subject—impossible to pin down and uncomfortably hilarious. [B]