A film review by Craig J. Koban September 5, 2014 


2014, no MPAA rating, 90 mins.

A documentary directed by  Jennifer M. Root

I think that many people will already have an impression of George Takei before they venture into seeing TO BE TAKEI.  

He most famously played Sulu in the original STAR TREK TV series and subsequent film franchise.  What many perhaps don’t know about the iconic 77-year-old actor is that he's also a staunch and deeply proud civil rights activist and a true survivor of past social-political horrors.  Considering the fact that Takei had to endure the hellish ordeal of being placed in a Japanese internment camp by his own American government during World War II and lead most of his professional life as a closeted gay minority, it’s astounding that he would eventually become a truly warm hearted and inspirational man of unbridled optimism.  TO BE TAKEI is a wonderful celebration of a very public figure that fought many private demons and subverted ethnic and sexual stereotypes throughout his life to become a man of great resilience and optimism.  It’s really hard not to like George Takei. 

Produced and directed by Jennifer M. Kroot, TO BE TAKEI is – on a superficial level – a standard, made-to-order talking heads documentary that never really challenges, nor breaks the conventions of the genre.  Yet, Kroot makes up for such shortcomings by infusing her film with a wonderful level on intimacy with her subject matter throughout.  The film is largely told through the words of Takei and his long-time partner and husband, Brad Altman, who has been with Takei through thick and thin for a quarter of a century.  The film chronicles the comings and goings of this pair as they spend their days doing both trivial and significant things.  The endless chatter between them serves as an effective one-two combination that gives the film an always involving center of focus.  Considering that Takei, no doubt, had to keep his love life a well guarded secret for decades, it must have been cathartic for him to have a film hone in directly on the very relationship that he had to keep on the down-low for so very long.  



TO BE TAKEI dutifully covers Takei’s mostly humble upbringings as an American-Japanese citizen (his father moved to the United States when he was ten and his mother was American born).  Then the ravages of World War II and Pearl Harbor reared their ugly heads, and the documentary never shies away from chronicling Takei’s most nightmarish portion of his life when his entire family was uprooted from their homes – by military men with machine guns – and were forced against their will to reside in Japanese internment camps surrounded by barb wired fences and sentry towers.  As a result of FDR’s Executive Order 9066, many families like Takei's lost their business, homes and livelihoods – all without charges, a trial, or any due process – and essentially were treated like war criminals.  Takei is publicly known as a man of easy-going congeniality and spunk, but when he speaks of this decidedly dark period of his childhood he does so with a grave solemnity.  

Experiences like this would have broken the wills and spirits of just about any young boy growing up.  Yet, Takei used his time in the internment camps to courageously trek forward in his future career as an actor.  The second major roadblock of his life was actually trying to make it as a Japanese actor in a post-WWII Hollywood, which was a Herculean task, to be sure.  Takei matter-of-factly speaks towards the intense difficulty of securing work when the industry simply didn’t have decent and worthwhile roles…and ones that were not laced with offensive racial stereotypes.  When Gene Roddenberry cast him in STAR TREK in the mid-1960’s he did so to present a look at the future that was much more inclusive and multicultural.  The role of Sulu was a mostly marginal one, at best, in pure hindsight, but it was a significant one that was not a gross Japanese caricature, something unheard of for its time.  Actors like John Cho (who would play Sulu in the STAR TREK reboot) speaks with great pride in the doc about how Takei was a positively ethnic role model for his people on TV when there simply wasn’t any. 

Unfortunately, Takei’s post-TREK TV life was difficult.  Kroot gets Takei to open up considerably about his acting failures outside of Roddenberry’s universe, which included a rather embarrassing turn in a Jerry Lewis film that Takei pathetically confesses was one of his lowest points as an actor (you can really sense his shame in discussing such bit parts and goes to great lengths to apologize for them).  His next major hurtle, though, would be to deal with his own longstanding-closeted homosexuality.  Being a minority in the industry was one nagging issue for the actor, but also being gay was, to loosely paraphrase him, another prison-like cage being placed around him and his future as a performer.  Takei, nearly teary-eyed at times, relays that he did so only to ensure the very survival of his career…and he did so for an awfully long-time.  TO BE TAKEI does provide some audio from an appearance he made on the Howard Stern radio show (he would become a regular) where he vehemently denies his homosexuality when coaxed by the host in 1990.  Takei, though, more than made up for such indiscretions by becoming a champion of gay rights and gay marriage in the years that past. 

Considering that Takei appeared on one of the most popular TV shows and franchise film series of the 20th Century, there’s very little focus in TO BE TAKEI on his STAR TREK life…which is kind of refreshing.  Kroot does manage to get some interviews from his fellow cast members, perhaps the most notorious of them being William Shatner, whose awkward responses to some very simple and frank questions about Takei reveals the infamous off-camera rivalry that has existed between the two for years.  At one point Shatner – rather sheepishly – tries to avoid the question of why he didn’t attend Takei’s wedding (he “didn’t really know him” is his best answer, despite, in Takei’s rightful opinion, having worked with him on TV and films for over four decades).  Shatner even appears pompously incredulous when talking about how his former Starship Enterprise helmsman was given a captaincy in one of the later STAR TREK films, which reveals a level of professional pettiness in Shatner’s character.  Takei, though, shows his former co-star very little love as well; he drives by a billboard featuring a  Shatner-helmed TV sitcom – showcasing the actor's mouth taped shut  – to which Takei deadpans, “His mouth is covered…as it should be.” 

Thankfully, TO BE TAKEI doesn’t focus too much on the more salacious and gossipy relationships that Takei has with former STAR TREK actors.  Instead, I was frankly relieved and enlightened by what a rich character portrait this film presents, especially for showing Takei as a truly courageous man that escaped his horrid upbringing – while also keeping self-punishing secrets about his sexual orientation – as a fully confident, liberated, and positive figure in the latter stages of his career.  “My life has been transformed as fantastically as science fiction,” he tells us in one point in the documentary.  It’s his inherent charm, wicked sense of humor, gregarious spirit, and willingness to get over past calumniates that makes Takei such a fascinating person of interest.  In a proud and rousing career that has faced ample hardships and has spanned two centuries – and is still going – he most certainly has gone where most men have never gone before.   That, and the fact that he can still have a self-deprecating laugh at his own expense is quite inspiring, to say the least. 

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