Last night, I had the distinct honor to attend a screening of To Be Takei — the new documentary about Start Trek actor, civil rights activist, and social media maven George Takei — as part of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center‘s ongoing Asian Pacific Heritage Month celebrations. Bookended by remarks from Smithsonian APAC Director Konrad Ng and a Q&A with the film’s subjects, the entire evening was a celebration of one of our culture’s most trailblazing icons.
Having made its debut at Sundance in January, To Be Takei was recently acquired by Starz for digital and theatrical distribution later this year. In advance of its formal theatrical release, the film has been doing the festival rounds and made its Washington, DC premiere at the Warner Brothers theater inside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. I was lucky enough to check it out with the homie (and fellow NOC) Patrick Michael Strange.
It seemed more than appropriate to screen a documentary about George Takei at the Smithsonian because he is, for all intents and purposes, a national treasure. In the five decades that he has been a thread in the pop culture fabric of America, Takei has seemingly been everything from a television and film star to a politician, a pitchman, a radio personality, a social justice crusader, and Facebook pioneer. With apologies to Howard Stern, I think it’s safe to say that George Takei has rights to the title of the King of All Media.
The film goes to great lengths to show all of these aspects of Takei’s life and career. At the center of it all, though, is his nearly three-decade long relationship with his partner and husband, Brad. Though the title of the film is ostensibly taken from a satiric PSA he created in response to the attempted passing of a law that would remove the word “gay” from Tennessee textbooks, the title could also refer to the trials and tribulations the couple endured to have their loving and committed relationship recognized for what it was: a marriage1.
That’s the other beautiful thing about the movie. The camera doesn’t shy away from their bickering or needling each other. In fact, most of their interactions involve some sort of passive aggressive shade throwing. At the same time, though, there is something unmistakably genuine about their love for each other. Though Brad might throw an occasional side eye at one of George’s not-so-veiled complaints, you never forget that these are two people who are deeply in love with one another. It’s also refreshing to see a gay couple be a normal, loving couple without having to have any of the Modern Family level histrionics thrown in just because.
George’s evolution as a gay rights activist (he didn’t come out until 2005) seemed like a natural extension of the civil rights work that drove his offscreen life for decades. In the post-Trek 70s, Takei ran for office and served on then Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley’s commission to create public transit in the city. Throughout the 70s and 80s, Takei was a tireless advocate for the redress movement that successfully won reparations and an official apology from the U.S. government for the surviving families of those Japanese Americans interned during World War II. To this day, Takei continues to be a passionate and outspoken voice in speaking out about the injustice experienced during that period.
As an internee himself, Takei has created a musical about his family’s experience in an Arkansas internment camp. His quest to get this musical to Broadway is another important thread throughout the film.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a George Takei documentary if it didn’t touch upon his time spent as Hikaru Sulu. It was nice to see all of the surviving members of the Starship Enterprise chime in on their relationship to George. The gang’s all here, too: Leonard Nimoy, Walter Koenig (who has not aged well, sorry to say), Nichelle Nichols (who has!) and even William Shatner. I know there has been beef between Takei and Shatner for years, but to be honest, I couldn’t tell if Shatner’s indifference in his talking head bits was real or staged. Either way, it made for some riveting viewing.
How do you distill nearly 80 years of hard work, determination, inspiration, and dedication into 90 minutes of film? You can’t really. But director Jennifer Kroot and editor Bill Weber should be commended for crafting a poignant, heartfelt, and most of all, entertaining journey through what it’s really like To Be Takei.
- At their 2008 wedding ceremony, Brad officially took his husband’s surname in order “to be Takei.” ↩