[3 September 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
On 7 December 1941, recalls George Takei, his “world was transformed almost as fantastically as science fiction.” At the time, he was only four years old, and when he saw federal officials coming to round up his family, he was shocked. “We were incarcerated, simply because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor.” Takei tells this story repeatedly, you see in the documentary To Be Takei, for multiple audiences in many different places. It’s a story and experience that shaped him and continue to shape the nation where he was born and raised.
That would be the US. Once best known for his role as Mr. Sulu on Star Trek, Takei takes great pleasure in recalling that adventure, so “fantastic” and so forward-looking, as he recognized even in 1966, when he auditioned for Gene Roddenberry to appear on a starship out in space with a multi-ethnic crew.” As he puts it, “I desperately wanted that role,” owing largely to the difficulty he’d already had as an actor stymied by racist expectations. Sulu was part of a grand new concept, a galactic helmsman, who helped Takei, he says now, to “put to rest all of those stereotypes about Asian drivers.”
Yes, Takei is funny as well as smart and charming. However much he’s performing himself for Jennifer Kroot’s camera, however much he laughs awfully loudly, falls back on his signature joke-phrase “Oh my!” or finds what he calls the “optimism” available in pretty much every experience he recounts, Takei appears throughout this entertaining movie to be at least as self-aware as you might consider yourself.
Appearing with Howard Stern, making jokes at Bill Shatner’s expense, he perpetually acknowledges the act. Framing Takei as part of a larger project that has as much to do with his civil rights activism as with his acting career, the film suggests that “to be Takei” is something of a job and also, an orientation.
“To be Takei”, of course, is the phrase Takei coined when he was working on the campaign against Tennessee’s 2011 “Don’t Say Gay” bill, a bill prohibiting teachers in public school classrooms from discussing homosexuality. As Takei recalls here, his own route to coming out was long and troubled, in large part a function of his professional ambition during an era when it was hard to be out. That he has come to connect his oppressions as Asian and gay make him an enormously effective spokesperson for multiple causes, embodying the multiplicity of identities that everyone lives day to day, even if not everyone needs to speak that multiplicity.
To that end, Takei takes the opportunity of the film to educate viewers as well as any and all individuals with whom he interacts on screen. These range from fans (“Oh my goodness, they’re lining up outside,” he says, as he approaches a comic book event attended by civilians and journalists, all with cameras) to colleagues (Walter Koenig admires his activism) to his husband Brad (whom Takei affectionately calls “my stay-at-home manager”). This relationship frames the documentary, as they’re both equally committed to “Takei,” the commercial and activist entity, as well as to one another. “Life is reality TV for me,” Brad tells a young fan who notices the camera at a signing event. “Just pretend the cameras aren’t there, that’s how I do it.”
In reassuring the young boy with big glasses, Brad does what he and Takei both do very well, which is to remain very aware of the cameras and use them to their own ends. As the couple discusses their separate angsts before coming out as younger men, Takei insists they use the precise language, even when joking, because they’re joking on camera. “I never really considered the straight lifestyle,” Brad says. “It’s not a lifestyle,” Takei cuts in, reminding you that two scenes before he’s corrected the famously homophobic Stephen Baldwin during a media appearance. “It’s an orientation. I always correct people when they say that.”
Brad smiles here, gesturing as he explains he was using “gay quote marks”. For Takei, however, the correcting is a life’s project, begun when he was a child in an internment camp, surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire and, even when released, subjected to painful prejudice.
To Be Takei helps with that correcting, illustrating and contextualizing Takei’s storytelling with archival footage of the camps and family photos. As he continues to cope with difficult memories that are also a nation’s shameful history, Takei begins to make other images, including the musical Allegiance, billed as a “story you’ve never heard.” For Takei, it’s important to tell the story so that it will be heard and not forgotten: when someone in an audience refers to the “Japanese internment camps”, he’s quick to correct, again. These facilities were in the US, he points out, they were camps for incarcerating Japanese Americans, by presidential executive order. “No charges, no trials,” he says, “The pillar of our justice system, due process, just disappeared.”
That would be exactly what Takei is not. Out, loud, and conspicuous in every way he can make himself, he’s an ideal activist for the current era.