George Takei's 'To Be Takei' Doc: Internment Camp, Internet Fame and Marriage 'Normality'
George Takei — the former Star Trek actor and present Facebook phenom and LGBT activist — invited press aboard the Queen Mary 2 on Monday for a screening of his new documentary, To Be Takei. The film, shot over a three-year period, details the many obstacles the 77-year-old had to overcome as a closeted Asian-American actor, and profiles his newly married life with husband and business partner, Brad.
For director Jennifer M. Kroot, a fascination with George grew from Star Trek fandom to activist admiration, and eventually to his autobiography, where a huge revelation was made about the Starfleet helmsman. "I read his autobiography and realized that Mr. Sulu was one of those 120,000 Japanese-Americans who was rounded up in a prisons during World War 2," Kroot said at a cocktail reception before a screening of the film. "And as a 5-year-old, I just couldn't really imagine that; to face all these obstacles and stay so relentlessly positive."
Throughout the documentary and the Q&A that followed, George mentioned his internment camp experiences often. The long, after-dinner discussions with his father helped to influence his governmental views that American democracy could be as great and as fallible as people themselves. What was needed was active participation for those promoting the right ideals. These conversations and early participation in Adlai Stevenson's presidential campaign sparked a lifetime of activity in social justice, civil rights and peace movements.
Between George's onscreen account of the camps and his life as an actor and activist, he's shown alongside Brad — walking hand in hand, eating breakfast and, at times, bickering. The two have been a couple for 27 years and were married in 2011. "We want people to see the normality of our marriage," George said, talking in slow, low measures, "something that opposite-sex couples can identify with."
Brad, who found himself in front of the camera for the first time for the film, added that while the documentary was being billed as a look at the life and career of George Takei, Brad noted there's an underlying message onscreen. "It's the story of an openly gay American who's been in a long-term relationship with another man, and it's showing fair-minded audiences that see the film that we're just like any other married couple."
Kroot was surprised to witness their dynamic as a couple and business partners, and made their interactions a central line in the film. "When I approached [George], I didn't know Brad; he wasn't in the media very much. I didn't know that that relationship would be so exciting in sort of a normal way. And I think it's so cinematic. It really grounds the film."
The film could be seen as an extension of George's rabid Internet following: He is open, honest and approachable in his daily posts, wrapping a serious point in memes, humor and the sort of winking innuendo that makes him, as Kroot describes, "like a G-rated John Waters." When Kroot approached Takei about filming a documentary, his social following had not yet reached the astronomical proportions it soars to today. As Brad says, her timing was perfect. "She captured George and I in a three-year time period of our life and had no idea that would happen," he said. "She caught that beginning of this popularity."
In addition to his fight for gay rights, George is seeking redress for the injustices committed at the the Japanese-American internment camps. In fact, he created the Facebook page to promote his musical, Allegiance, which opened in San Diego in 2012 and is currently looking for a Broadway stage. Takei calls Allegiance his legacy project and invokes the memory of his parents as he's onstage. In the documentary, he describes the Japanese concept of "gaman," or "enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity," to fully paint his father's bravery and the courage displayed at the time. Though the camps have been torn down, he's returned to the Arkansas swamp land where his family was detained to visit a cemetery for fallen Japanese-American soldiers.
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"I go there out of homage to the people that passed," he said. "And those are my heroes. They made my America possible with the incredible patriotism and sacrifices they made."
Takei says he doesn't believe in negativity, and maybe that's why he's so likable on Facebook and film. How can you disagree with someone brimming with joy while making smart logical arguments for the betterment of the country he loves so dear?
"Life is full of these ironies, and sometimes cruel ironies, and that's why good people have to say, 'That's not right; let's make it right.' And in a democracy you can if you engage," he said. "If you say nothing can be done then that problem remains. The important thing is to be participant. No one's going to do it for us. We have to hold democracy's feet to the fire and try to make it a true democracy, [and] expand equality and justice to more people."