The life of stage and screen star, Star Trek icon, and political activist, George Takei, has been anything but one mired in mediocrity. Since his earliest days, the man has had to overcome numerous personal and professional roadblocks that were in his path, attempting to keep him from achieving his goals. Where many other men, particularly those with a lesser degree of intestinal fortitude, might have given up and allowed the negativity of life to keep them stationed in a mundane existence, Takei refused to fall victim to those pitfalls. Premiering on January 18, 2014 at the “Sundance Film Festival,” director Jennifer M. Kroot’s (It Came From Kuchar) engaging, poignant documentary “To Be Takei” offers the viewer an intimate look into the actor and activists life in and out of the public eye.
George Takei is the antithesis of an individual who would be considered one-dimensional. Kroot’s documentary delves into his multi-faceted personality. She spotlights his eloquent manner of speaking, the classy style in which he comports himself, and his hilarious postings on Facbook and Twitter that are virtually devoured by his effusive fan base. But far from his voice, style, and quick-witted sense of humor, he has also given tirelessly of himself when it comes to raising awareness for the social issues that are meaningful to him.
A while back, I wrote a blog on Deforest Kelly, who played Dr. McCoy, a member of the original Star Trek cast. In that post, I described the happy memories I had associated with the original Trek because I used to watch it with my grandparents when I was a small child. Of course, by that point, it was already in re-runs. I wasn’t even born when the show’s five year mission, which sadly only lasted three, aired during the years 1967 through 1969.
Needless to say, I gave nary a thought as to Mr. Sulu’s sexual orientation at the time, and for all intents and purposes, I still don’t. I enjoyed his performance as the top notch helmsman of the galaxy during the course of the three years of the show and in the six films, and I still do. I am certainly aware, however, that the subject of gay rights is something that he feels extraordinarily passionate about. Throughout the documentary, the viewer learns that Takei does what he can to make sure that all human beings, regardless of their sexual orientation, are, first and foremost, treated with dignity. He is a vocal advocate for marriage equality, and wants Gays, Lesbians, Bi-Sexual and Transgendered couples to have the same rights as traditional married couples do.
I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for George and his partner, Brad, who he has been with for over a quarter of a century, and has been married to since September 14, 2008, keeping such an emotionally draining secret from virtually everyone they knew. The only reason it had to remain just that – – a ‘secret’ – – was so that Takei could continue to prosper in his career. The fact that they kept that secret is a powerful statement and speaks to me regarding the sort of loving relationship that George and Brad shared, and continue to share to this day. Brad loved George enough to keep his ‘secret’ so that his career would not be damaged.
Born on April 20, 1937 in Los Angeles, California, Takei was actually named after King George VI, since his father was an Anglophile. Sadly, like all of George’s schoolmates, and for that matter his fellow Japanese-Americans, his, and their lives were radically transformed once Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Japanese Americans, for no other reason, except for their ethnic background, had their homes taken from them, without any type of compensation. Forced to leave their residences, they were permitted to take with them only that which they could carry. Additionally, their businesses, and farms were also confiscated. Collectively, Japanese Americans who lived on the west coast, were rounded up and transported by train to Rohwer, Arkansas to an internment camp, where the living conditions were anything but ideal. Barbed wired fences, armed soldiers walking around on foot, armed sentinels keeping lookout from watchtowers, and trained attack dogs were all part of daily life at Rohwer. Additionally, so were three meals a day of inedible food, cramped living conditions in barracks jammed to capacity, and school days, which consisted of children learning the most rudimentary of skills. At a certain point during their internment Takei’s parents were presented with the opportunity to sign a loyalty statement; by doing so, they would have effectively denounced any and all allegiance to the Emperor of Japan. Takei’s father, knew that by signing the document, it would have been tantamount to an admission that he and his family had been loyal to Emperor Hirohito, and he refused to sign. The punishment for such a refusal was having his family moved to Tule Lake, California to a maximum security internment camp.
Throughout the documentary, Kroot shows Takei, expressing in great detail, while: lecturing (for example, at The Clinton School of Public Service), speaking at corporate events, appearing before congressional hearings, and accepting awards for his social work, not only about what life was like inside of the camps, but the detrimental aftermath, once he and his fellow Japanese-Americans were free to return home. Many returned to the shocking realization that they no longer had a home. Most of those who had been interned found themselves not only without a roof over their heads, but were greeted with vehement, anti-Japanese sentiments. (As an aside: Through Takei’s efforts working for redress on behalf of those Japanese-Americans who lost everything when they were uprooted against their will, 60,000 survivors of that horrific time period were, during the Ronald Reagan Presidency, finally given financial compensation for the losses they suffered).
The documentary explores many of the personal and professional roads travelled by this most dynamic individual. In addition to his surviving the unjustified treatment he and his family had to endure when he was a youngster, the profession he choose to peruse was no given. He not only stated he wanted to be an actor, during a time when there were limited opportunities for Asians in Hollywood, with the exception of stereotypical roles, but that is exactly what he did. Yes, he started out dubbing English voices for the American theatrical release of the Japanese monster movie “Rodan,” but he didn’t allow himself to be relegated to just that sort of work. He appeared on ground breaking television dramas such as “Playhouse 90,” as well as co-starred in an episode of the critically acclaimed “The Twilight Zone.” Along the way, due to poorly received advice from his agent, he did appear in some comedic roles that played up Asian stereotypes, but those sort of roles were few and far between for Takei. It didn’t take him long to land an audition for, and get the part of, Mr. Sulu on “Star Trek,” a role that would forever change his life, and permanently cement his name as part of science-fiction.
In the years that followed “Star Trek,” guest appearances on well known television shows were plentiful. Additionally, Takei served from 1973 through 1983, at the behest of former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, on the board of directors of the Southern California Rapid Transit District. Prior to that he ran for The Los Angeles City Council and lost by less than four thousand votes. The documentary features commentary from former Star Trek cast members, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, Leonard Nimoy, and William Shatner. When it comes to Shatner, one can quickly ascertain that there is no love lost on Takei’s end toward his feelings regarding the man who portrayed Captain Kirk. Shatner on the other hand, acts as if he barely knows Takei. All in all, if you’re a Star Trek fan, this is a must watch. For those of you who, in general, enjoy learning about unique individuals then this is also time well spent.