Similar to her 2009 documentary It Came from Kuchar, Jennifer M. Kroot’s To Be Takei proves adept at navigating an enthusiastic reverence for the career of an artist/activist, but is too content to merrily shuffle along its feature-length adoration, rather than more thoroughly examine and challenge the mythology surrounding its titular subject. In this case, Kroot’s attention turns from avant-garde filmmakers Mike and George Kuchar to George Takei, whose presence as both civil rights activist and social-media stalwart lends Kroot a plethora of potential angles to frame her narrative. Instead of homing in on a particular aspect of Takei’s life or locating a less hagiographic approach, Kroot plays things a bit too straight and safe by giving into basic emotional and thematic possibilities of each period in Takei’s prolific early life and subsequent Hollywood career.
To Be Takei works most productively when allowing Takei’s acting career to speak for itself on screen. For example, a clip from The Green Berets, with Takei playing a Japanese military captain opposite John Wayne, reveals his strengths and seriousness as an actor, in juxtaposition to more offensive, embarrassing, and caricatured Asian characters on television and in American films of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Or, there’s Takei’s line in an episode of Hawaii Five-O, when he states: “I learned early to keep my mouth shut.” Such legitimate instances of doubly ironic, repressive pop culture rails louder against inherent societal bigotry than simply stating the milieu to be as such.
Kroot uses interviews with actors John Cho and B.D. Wong to reveal a direct, generational lineage that has influenced aspiring Asian-American actors during and after Takei’s most prominent roles, culminating in his performance as Sulu in four seasons of Star Trek during the late ’60s and in six spin-off films over the course of 12 years. Similarly, but from a varied perspective, journalist Dan Savage notes Takei’s recent emergence as a gay rights activist, but laments that Takei wasn’t able to come out until 2005, claiming that a prominent, openly gay actor on a hit TV series during the ’60s would have catalyzed discussions of LGBT rights. Kroot includes these influential voices for their candor, certainly, but the brevity of their presence, along with nearly a dozen other interviewees that go nearly as quickly as they’ve come, reveals Kroot painting with too broad a brush stroke, as the film begins to carry an aura of fond reminiscence rather than rambunctious portrait or cackling exposé.
Kroot’s at her most deft when allowing Takei’s presence to take over the film, most notably in scenes with Takei and his husband, Brad. Whether debating the possibilities of raising children as a gay couple or recounting that Brad wasn’t able to attend an awards ceremony honoring Takei because it was “couples only,” these scenes bridge a gap between personal and public persona to reveal larger motivational depths of Takei’s past actions and current activism. Yet these revelations lack affective depth beyond their mere admission, since Kroot uses these scenes as pop-psych fodder, seeking to explain Takei’s rebellious, zanily askew demeanor as a fairly direct correlative to his having battled through oppressive racism and homophobia for much of his life. To Be Takei, it seems, is to be acerbic in the face of a suppressive order, something Takei himself claims to be untrue, saying his parents knew from an early age that they were “saddled with a ham,” but Kroot rejects Takei’s tongue-in-cheek ambivalence about his dynamic persona by suggesting that it can, indeed, be quantified by identity politics.