Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: George Takei, Brad Takei, Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, William Shatner, John Cho, Howard Stern, Dan Savage, B.D. Wong, Tom Ammiano
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Jennifer M. Kroot
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 94
Date: 08/22/2014
IMDB

To Be Takei (2014)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Sulu Plus

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I settled down to Jennifer M. Kroot's To Be Takei as a longtime Star Trek fan, though not quite a "trekkie," who prefers the original series and the original cast to anything else. I was hoping for at least a fun fan documentary about actor George Takei, who played Sulu. But what I got instead was an often profound documentary about racism, forgiveness, bigotry, empathy, and love. The movie tackles its issues with strength, but without rage.

Born in 1937 in Los Angeles, to a Japanese father and an American mother. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese-Americans were rounded up and put into concentration camps. This happened in America, or, to be specific, in Arkansas. (I'm not sure how well-known this fact is today; I myself did not know about it until I was an adult.). Takei grew up in camps, surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire fences.

But he was a natural, self-described ham and as a young adult he took a job dubbing Japanese monster movies into English, which led to an acting career. He did not want to play stereotypical Asian roles, but, of course, that's all there were for a while, including roles in some Jerry Lewis comedies. He also appeared with John Wayne in Wayne's notorious right-wing, pro-Vietnam movie The Green Berets. Fortunately, along came Star Trek in 1966, and if I can't vouch for it myself, then here are Asian-American actors like John Cho and B.D. Wong who claim that seeing Sulu on television was a revelation.

Takei had a brief career in politics, running for office and losing, and serving on committees. But a greater challenge came when he decided, after a long career, to come out of the closet and reveal his homosexuality. What's more, he had been with the same partner, Brad, for decades. Brad is the key to this movie. He's warm, funny, and does not suffer Takei's celebrity easily. We see Brad rigorously managing Takei's sci-fi convention appearances (autographing photos for a whopping $35 each). But we also see Brad poking holes from time to time in Takei's carefully constructed actor's facade, just as any normal married couple would do.

The movie goes into Takei's battle for gay marriage and the way he used humor to poke holes in the right's creaky, rigid arguments. And, Star Trek fans, hang onto your hats, it goes a little into Takei's relationship with William Shatner (who does appear here). Shatner claims that they were never friends, at all, but Takei seems to harbor a certain love-hate relationship (mostly hate) for the former Captain Kirk. Takei claims to have invited Shatner to his and Brad's wedding, and Shatner claims to have never received an invitation.

Nichelle Nichols, Leonard Nimoy, and Walter Koenig also appear, with the air of casual acquaintances, like old high school buddies who were there for Takei's formative years, but today are not around for much more than the occasional catch-up. Koenig sheds a little more light on things; he still looks like Chekov, but older and bald, and the movie paints him as a man whose career is over, whereas Takei's career is still blooming. (Koenig shows up for a premiere of a new stage musical based on Takei's internment camp years.) Koenig acknowledges this gap sadly, but also with pride for his old friend.

The kind of documentaries I like best are the ones that paint a portrait of a single person, preferably a person still living so that actual footage can be used, and preferably a person of some outsider status. I like stories of these people who live and do extraordinary things. (Terry Zwigoff's Crumb is my favorite documentary of all time.) All through To Be Takei, I realized that I wasn't watching the typical Hollywood film about an actor that celebrated his acting. Takei is not a particularly great actor or a great movie star -- he is known less for performances than for appearances -- but through luck and timing, through energy and persistence, he made a large impact on many people. He is a great life force who deserves all the adoration and respect he gets. And Jennifer Kroot's film deserves adoration and respect as well.

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