There is a moment in Jennifer M. Kroot’s documentary To Be Takei, where her film’s subject, Star Trek alum, stage and screen actor and social activist George Takei has a moment of genuine introspection, pronouncing ‘I, in my own life, have been the beneficiary of an optimistic view of life’. And while the quote seems frivolous at first, once the film begins mapping Takei’s extraordinary hardships, from his time spent in an American internment camp as a child to his professional and political identities as a closeted gay man to his recent activism for GLBT rights and marriage equality, that seemingly frivolous admission instills Kroot’s film with a necessary and tangible focus.
As a subject, Takei offers Kroot’s ever present camera a fascinating duality allowing the film’s narrative to shift between socio-political activism and the absurdity surrounding Takei’s iconic fame as a pop-culture stalwart. Bridging the gap between these two worlds is the self-effacing and genuine relationship George shares with his husband Brad Altman. In fact its Altman’s role onscreen as the often flustered straight man (excuse the pun) to Takei’s refined comedian that allows the camera to embrace a more intimate side of Takei, whose persona as a consummate performer often barricades the film’s audience from gleaning a genuine or unexpected insight into the Japanese American entertainer.
And therein lies the flaw in Kroot’s biographical ambitions. With Takei’s public saturation of the brand ‘George Takei’, which includes regular appearances on Howard Stern’s radio show, numerous guest spots on TV sitcoms, news programs and public speaking along with a massive online community spearheaded by a Facebook page boasting seven million friends, there isn’t much to be gleaned about the man that isn’t already common knowledge.
Ultimately the real intrigue of To Be Takei is harvested from old stock footage of the American internment camps where Takei spent his childhood behind barbed-wire fences and listening to the actor recall stories from his early career opposite the likes of John Wayne and Jerry Lewis. And of course watching the gentle, well-spoken 77 year old Takei roast William Shatner by loudly proclaiming ‘Fuck you and the horse you rode in on’ will never grow old, but to be perfectly honest as a documentary film, To Be Takei, while entertaining and endearing never manages to supersede the trivial.