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To Be Takei

D: Jennifer M. Kroot, Bill Weber / 94m

George Takei, Brad Takei, Howard Stern, Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, Brad Savage, Lea Salonga, John Cho, B.D. Wong, Daniel Inouye

George Takei’s early life in Los Angeles was blighted by Executive Order 9066 which ordered the internment of all persons considered a threat to national security, particularly any Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast. Takei and his family were moved to the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas. After a year, the introduction of a “loyalty questionnaire” – which his father refused to sign – meant they were relocated to a camp in Tule Lake, California. At the end of the war they were allowed to return to Los Angeles.

Takei did well in school, and eventually enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley. He became interested in acting – though he admits he was a “performer” long before then – but it wasn’t until the late Fifties that he began to find work, initially doing voice over work on movies such as Rodan (1956). A couple of Jerry Lewis movies (albeit playing racially dubious roles) gave him a small degree of exposure, enough to be considered for the role of Sulu in Star Trek. As part of the multi-ethnic crew, Takei’s appearance was a tremendous boost for Asian-American actors, but in real terms his career continued at a steady pace, mostly in TV.

1973 saw the beginning of Takei’s political career. He ran for the City Council of Los Angeles, but narrowly lost out. However, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley appointed him to the team responsible for the planning of the Los Angeles subway system. His political career came to a close in the early Eighties as the Star Trek movies became increasingly popular. Concentrating his efforts on acting, Takei saw in the Nineties by finally becoming Captain Sulu in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). At around the same time he became involved in The Howard Stern Show, and is the show’s semi-regular announcer even now. The new century saw him as busy as ever but 2005 was a defining year: in October, Takei revealed that he was gay and had been in a relationship (with Brad Altman) for eighteen years. To many it wasn’t a shock as he’d been a supporter of LGBT organisations for some time, but it led to his becoming a more vocal supporter of gay rights and same-sex marriage; at present he’s a spokesperson for the Human Rights Act “Coming Out Project”.

In 2008, he and Brad married and together they tour the world giving speeches and making convention appearances and turning up on TV. Takei has embraced Facebook in a big way and currently has around eight million followers; his daily posts are funny and occasionally, controversial. And in 2012 he appeared in the stage musical Allegiance, a project he helped initiate and which is set in a Japanese internment camp in World War II.

To Be Takei - scene

If you sat down to write a book or a film script or a stage play, and you made your main character a somewhat diminutive Japanese-American homosexual who finds fame as an actor on a science fiction TV show, it’s a safe bet that publishers and backers would look at you funny and then laugh you out of the room for being so foolish. After all, who’s going to believe a story as far-fetched as that? And yet, George Takei is living proof that you can be all that and more.

Charting his life and experiences, To Be Takei is an amusing, warm-hearted look at a man who, over the last fifty years, has become a pop-culture icon. It’s a sweet-natured movie, much like the man himself, and is a wonderful introduction to a man who laughs at everything (unless you say being gay is a lifestyle – he’ll tell you in no uncertain terms it’s not, it’s an orientation). He has a great laugh too, a rich, soulful chuckle that punctuates his speech as if he can’t control it. Seeing him being so cheerful, and so much of the time, it’s plain to see he’s a man who’s lived not only a full life – he’s currently 77 – but is still doing so and with no intention of slowing down. His energy levels are prodigious. But it’s most likely his childhood at Rohwer that informs this, and the scenes where he discusses his time at the camps in Arkansas and California add a depth and a meaning to a life that, otherwise, seems to have been a model of fun and excitement. That it hasn’t left any permanent emotional scars is a testament to his resilience and his refusal not to let it affect him in any meaningful way. It’s these scenes that resonate the most, especially when they dovetail into those that show the development of Allegiance.

The movie follows Takei and Brad as they attend various functions and travel round the US. At one point they’re up in the mountains scattering Brad’s mother’s ashes. The wind proves to be blowing in the wrong direction and some of the ashes end up on their clothes. George’s pithy observation? “And I think your mom’s going to be at the cleaner’s too.” The relationship between George and Brad is the cornerstone of the movie, their devotion to each other so evident that when they’re taking the mickey out of each other, you’re laughing with them because it wouldn’t even occur to you to laugh at them. Even when Brad is in manager mode and bossing George around, there’s a deep-rooted affection there the whole time that makes it all the more marvellous to witness.

As well as his time in the internment camps there’s a fair amount of time devoted to his exploits in Star Trek, and the ongoing animosity between George and William Shatner – “Speaking of fat alcoholics… good evening, Bill.” – but it’s the contributions of Nimoy, Nichols and Koenig that add a poignancy to the proceedings, and reinforce just how much he’s loved by his old “comrades in space”. In fact, the movie is very good at providing just the right amount of time for each phase of his life and career, and for the current day activities he gets up to. Balancing out what really has been an incredibly varied and rewarding life, it’s to the movie’s credit – and Takei’s – that he remains as likeable as he’s always been. He’s so highly regarded and he’s so open and honest about things that by the movie’s end you feel you almost know him, such is the attention to detail and interest in him shown by Kroot and Weber. And with the honesty and commitment shown by Takei and Brad, the movie also paints a lovely portrait of two people who are still enamoured of each other after more than twenty-five years.

Rating: 8/10 – a documentary about a remarkable man presented in a fun, entertaining way, To Be Takei is a joy to watch, and made all the more so by Takei’s obvious enjoyment at being filmed; even if you only watch it to see his public service announcement regarding Tim Hardaway – “Oh my” indeed – you’ll find yourself wishing you could spend just a little bit more time in his company.