To be George Takei is to be a great many things to an even greater many people. He’s the man adorning the highlights of thousands of Facebook timelines every day, through his immensely popular personal page1. He’s a public speaker with an engrossing story about how his own country’s democratic systems failed him out of baseless fear2. He’s a LGBT rights activist who can charm even the most hardline of political conservatives. At the very least, he’s the man who says “oh myyyy” as his catch-phrase, and in a super deep voice that you remember hearing in one TV show or another, particularly his stint on Star Trek as Sulu.3 By the end of this brightly compelling, smartly assembled documentary, however, that will feel like a mere sub-heading in a rich and inspiring life, melding comedy and tragedy with a winningly self-deprecating attitude.
Fitting for a film seeking to humanise a man with almost superhuman accomplishments behind him, director Jennifer Kroot and crew trail George and his husband/manager Brad over the course of a few days, starting with an exuberant morning walk where Brad encourages him to walk fast enough to lose the camera crew. Scenes with the couple playfully bickering are like a smart romantic comedy, but always framed in the extraordinary commitments they fulfill every day so as to feel genuine. Segueing from those events are affirmations of Takei’s popularity, not just in the fan meet-and-greets but on archival footage of his past roles and talking-head interviews with friends and admirers. Where it gets truly engrossing, though, is when we delve into George’s past struggles, not just as a stereotyped Asian-American actor, but as someone who was imprisoned and then impoverished for his racial identity as a child, due to post-WWII fears about anyone even resembling the enemy that bombed Pearl Harbour. George relates these both in direct interviews and in numerous public speaking commitments, rarely changing the wording and making abundantly clear the abandonment of due process and justice, which threw his family into jail and then onto Skid Row. This is the strongest way in which we wrap around to the present, because we see George produce, rehearse, and perform a musical based on that terrible experience, with hopes for a stint on Broadway. Kroot and editor Bill Weber jump skillfully between all of these throughlines so as to be comprehensive and keep the emotional palette diverse and engaging.
Many will know George before the documentary even rolls, but they will likely be pleased to properly meet the most important man in his life. Not just a verbal sparring partner and lover, Brad is the level-headed planner that leads us and George throughout his dizzying day-to-day routine. He admonishes George when he says something naive, and is not quite as accepting of Kroot and company’s surveillance, having been thrust into the limelight after George’s coming-out nine years ago in their decades-long relationship. He gradually thaws, leading to moments of affecting intimacy and even some constructive criticism of how George presents himself to people. Having taken his last name, Brad also knows what it is to be Takei, and arguably better than even George. It’s fitting that we come to understand George better as a result of his cutting commentary and fond remembrances.
Visually, the film stays interesting by presenting both title cards and archival material in a vibrant fashion that echoes the pop culture that the Takeis are so embedded in, without trivialising the darker points of his life. Kroot and her crew have an eye for unique camera setups, locations, and lines of questioning that make George’s eloquent missives on his life’s work all the more humane. Michael Hearst’s score does the same, using satisfying motifs to draw upon various facets of Takei’s storied history. Similar idiosyncratic favours are done for talking heads with former colleagues. Particularly noteworthy are the interviews with Star Trek co-stars William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, both for their unique relationships to Takei and for their hilarious introductions to slash fiction that has paired the duo’s characters together.4 George’s cheeky demeanour and taste for satire runs through the film this way, gently admonishing antiquated notions of masculinity in a way that must make him proud.
One can easily imagine a version of the film that hollowly capitalises on Takei’s charms, brushing past his legitimate social causes for extended riffs on his Facebook presence. While To Be Takei certainly has playful antics and works as a great extension of the gentle figure people have met online, it also organically plays into important social concerns. This never feels ill-fitting because we have a poignant, ground-level entrenchment with the man himself, who seems to carry both in him with admirable resilience and optimism. His hard work in public service and activism is a sober and inspiring reminder for addressing those democratic obligations with effective cultural dialogue, and only bolsters the appeal of the tastefully naughty gentleman we’ve come to love.
It’s fitting that the film’s title refers to one of Takei’s most selfless gestures, where he gently mocked a state measure to ban the word “gay” by encouraging students to be “Takei” instead, literally lending his name to a very sincere cause. This is the gift of the movie, hooking us in with his very human charms, then leveraging that appeal in order to lead us with enviable confidence through the thorny brambles of his past experiences, and their tangential democratic and social issues. From his frustration at his government’s abandoned democracy in childhood, to his successful berth as both an Asian-American actor and a gay activist, Takei’s life is a deceptively complicated mix of interrelated social causes and characteristics. To Be Takei brings that balancing act to life with the same grace and aplomb as the man himself.