Midway through To Be Takei, Jennifer M. Kroot’s feature-length profile of velvet-voiced actor, gay-rights activist, and social-media hilariator George Takei, the former Mr. Sulu is publicly asked what Star Trek episode or film was most fun to shoot. He cites 1966’s “The Naked Time,” one of the very first outings of what has become a 50-year franchise. In that episode, a bizarre contagion causes the usually reliable crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise to become more flamboyant and openly emotional—drunk, basically. Sulu boldly goes shirtless—a privilege the show typically reserved for William Shatner’s Captain Kirk—and stalks the ship’s corridors with a fencing foil. Springing onto the bridge, chest shimmering with sweat, he tells Nichelle Nichols’ Lieutenant Uhura, “I’ll protect you, fair maiden!” “Sorry, neither,” she retorts. And yet some people insist Star Trek was never funny on purpose.
Too bad Kroot’s chummy-to-a-fault documentary doesn’t have more of that kind of friction. She focuses, reasonably, on the primary chapters of Takei’s life: Born in Los Angeles during the Great Depression, he was 5 when soldiers forced his family from their home and into an Arkansas internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. He was 8 when they were released. It took six decades for Takei to liberate himself from an equally unjust, but self-imposed confinement: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoing the gay-marriage bill, approved by the state legislature in 2005, was what finally prompted Takei to speak out not just as a gay-rights advocate, but as a gay person. (Sex columnist Dan Savage shows up in Kroot’s doc long enough to speculate that coming out might’ve been easier for him, had the world known at the time that the man at the controls of its most storied fictional spacecraft was gay.)
By that point, Takei and his now-husband Brad Takei had already been together for close to 20 years. Brad rates nearly as much screen time in To Be Takei as George does, and his endearing discomfort in the spotlight contrasts amusingly with his spouse’s always-on extroversion. Takei feared his career, already in its winter, would suffer, but instead it exploded, giving him a late renaissance not as another Starfleet pensioner on the convention circuit, but as—in his own words—“gay George Takei,” the guy whose quippy Facebook posts delight his 7.4 million “friends.”
Takei’s social-media cult seems to have inspired the film, but Kroot takes care of the Trek fans, too. Her documentary has barely begun when Takei drives past a billboard advertising $#*! My Dad Says—a short-lived sitcom adapted from an iconic, long-running Twitter account—and he notes that star William Shatner has his mouth taped shut in the photo, “as well it should be.” Shatner didn’t show up for Takei’s wedding, and insists he wasn’t invited, though Takei and Nichols say he was.
“I don’t know him, and he doesn’t know me,” Shatner says of Takei. The former captain sure comes off as a jerk in this movie, but it isn’t an unreasonable impulse to want to keep some boundaries in place among colleagues. A clip Kroot includes from Comedy Central’s 2006 roast of Shatner has Takei telling his former captain, “I can finally say what I’ve waited 40 years to say: Fuck you and the horse you rode in on,” which doesn’t sound much like a joke at all. Takei makes a point of saying how gratified he was that by 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country—the final Trek to feature the original principal cast—Sulu at last got to command his own starship, one that comes to the Enterprise’s rescue at the climax of the movie. Shatner has something dickish to say about that, too.
But Takei’s experience as an underrepresented minority in Hollywood trying to conceal his identity as an even more underrepresented one gives To Be Takei its richest topic. Takei speaks candidly of understanding his sexual identity “in the fifth or sixth grade,” and even about his first sexual experience, with a camp counselor. That sounds dodgy, but he makes no indication that the encounter was unwelcome, and Kroot visualizes his recollection of the story with a animated clip of two boys seen in silhouette, embracing in a cabin window. In the less-sexy, more-comfy present, George and Brad snipe at one another lovingly as only old marrieds can.
The portrait Kroot ultimately delivers is of an admirably upbeat but relentlessly on-message guy. The same energy and discipline that make Takei such an effective advocate for marriage equality (“I don’t believe in negativity,” he says) make him an imperfect documentary subject, in that it never appears the director witnesses anything Takei didn’t intend for her to see. He frames his own story methodically, and Kroot either doesn’t know how to get beyond the image, or isn’t interested in a critical remove.
One revealing montage shows Takei giving what appears to be the same speech about his internment experiences at a number of venues, his delivery and intonation identical in each performance. Takei’s ability to remain even-tempered and articulate even when being taunted is what’s made him a beloved regular on Howard Stern’s raunchy morning radio show, but Kroot captures relatively little of him thinking on his feet. (She does dig up a clip from his first appearance on the show, in 1990, when Stern asks point-blank if he’s gay, and Takei denies it. Years later, Takei moved Stern to throw his weight behind the marriage-equality cause.) He seems like one of the least neurotic men on the planet, and yet how could that describe someone who lived with a heavy secret for 68 years? That’s the question Kroot’s film circles without ever managing completely to ask, much less fully answer.
Still, it’s no chore to watch Takei go on about his various political and artistic enterprises with a vitality and optimism that belie his 77 years. He debates marriage-equality foes on cable-news shows. He promotes Allegiance, the musical he collaborated on with writer-composers Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, about the internment of Japanese-Americans. (Takei starred in a 2012 production of the show in San Diego, and is working to bring it to Broadway.) He appears at the Emerald City Comicon, smiling and chatting cheerily with fans while his husband plays the bad cop, keeping the line moving and handling the cash fans fork over for Takei’s autograph. This 90-minute film isn’t substantially more revealing than the 22-minute Fresh Air interview Takei did to promote it, but the idea that the septuagenarian years could be the busiest, most rewarding part of a life will comfort many people.