Of all the original Star Trek cast members living or dead, George Takei has undoubtedly led the most fraught and compelling life. Yet that life, full of drama and pain, has birthed a relatively fluffy profile, To Be Takei, a documentary in the form of what journalists (back when there was journalism) used to call a puff piece. To be fair, the movie seems to hew close to Takei’s own personality, one that compartmentalizes past traumas and disappointments. Takei lives in the now while giving his history its due; he appears to have an eminently healthy outlook, which may make for a happy man but also a portrait without edges.
Takei spent three years of his early childhood in various Japanese-American internment camps during World War II; he went into acting at a time when there were vanishingly few inoffensive roles for Asians; he was closeted for decades until, in 2005, in response to opposition to gay marriage in his home state of California, he came out. Takei says he stayed in the closet to protect his career, though coming out seems to have had an effect the exact opposite of what he feared — he’s been highly visible and beloved ever since, followed by millions on Facebook, lending his honeyed and insinuating baritone to commercials, cameo appearances, and Howard Stern’s show, where he’s been a fixture since 1990. Takei turned out to be the hippest Trek veteran since Wil Wheaton (seen here when Takei gets a dig in at him about his weight) learned to stop worrying and love the Enterprise.
To Be Takei throws together the expected clips, along with some rarely-seen early TV work that probably only the most die-hard Trekkies have laid eyes on in decades. Takei, like Nichelle Nichols, stood for something on Star Trek: Gene Roddenberry’s ideal of a color-blind meritocracy. Actors John Cho (who assumed Takei’s role of Sulu for the new reboot movies) and B.D. Wong talk about how empowering it was to see a vital, passionate Asian actor on TV, not playing a clown but someone with rank and agency. A lot of the present-day footage follows Takei and his husband Brad, a fretful, vaguely resentful type who organizes Takei’s many gigs. Scenes of Takei interacting happily with often emotional fans lose a bit of heartwarmth when we find that Takei, like many other glad-handers on the nerd-nostalgia convention circuit, charges $35 an autograph.
Director Jennifer Kroot, who previously made the documentary It Came from Kuchar about the underground-filmmaker Kuchar brothers, is obviously simpatico with the outsider, and she tries to jazz up To Be Takei visually with a motif of blue pulpy patterns. Unavoidably, though, most of it is talking-heads footage. Kroot follows Takei and spouse to the remnants of one of the internment camps, but the passage is over with fast, presumably on the grounds that it would bum us out. More time is devoted to the folly known as Allegiance, a musical loosely based on Takei’s experiences in those camps. To be honest, from what we see of it, it looks kind of awful, but Takei calls it his “legacy work.”
As seriously as he may take that musical, though, it would seem that Takei’s real legacy will be as an avatar of cool in the “It gets better” era — a double minority whose story has had a storybook final act. I like George Takei. I don’t see how anyone couldn’t. He’s funny, avuncular, on the side of the angels (well, except when he recently posted a joke image on his Facebook page that offended disabled fans, and then blew off their objections). He’s a cult figure among l’internetoisie and possibly a continuing inspiration to young gays and aspiring Asian actors. I’ll feel a sad twinge when he goes (may he outlive William Shatner, who comes off in the movie as a supreme douchebag). To Be Takei celebrates him but blithely neglects to probe for any complexity in a man who has surely suffered much. Maybe what we see today — a septuagenarian amiably adjusted, basking in acceptance after decades of suppressing himself — is all we get and what the movie offers.