TO BE TAKEI: Beyond “Oh Myyy”

If you’re reading this, and therefore are conversant with a little thing called the internet, there’s a 99% chance you are at least somewhat familiar with George Takei. Maybe you were introduced to him through social media. Maybe you’ve heard a little bit about his passion project, the musical Allegiance, in the news, or heard him on Howard Stern. Perhaps you’re dimly aware of his gay rights activism, or have seen him guest starring on your favorite TV show. And of course, if you don’t know him as Mr. Sulu from the original Star Trek, you’re probably either a millennial or not from this planet. Regardless, you probably have an idea of him in your mind that at least corresponds to the fringes of his reality. But I guarantee that you don’t know as much about him as you think you do, which is why, if you even consider yourself a peripheral fan, you’ll want to check out To Be Takei.

I should warn you right off that there are no thrills and chills here. You won’t find any shocking revelations, high drama, swift action or pacing. There will be the occasional corny graphic, though they are blessedly rare. There may even be some times when you find things to be a little slow. But overall, To Be Takei is a fascinating (see what I did there) look at the life of a beloved public figure, as well as a lesson about the less than savory piece of American history that shaped his life.

The first and most important thing to know about George Takei is that he is an optimist. “You determine your destiny,” he says. “I don’t believe in negativity.” This attitude is a critical part of his success in life. George has faced racism, homophobia, and imprisonment by his own countrymen for nothing more incriminating than his ancestry. He has managed to break stereotypes and forge a successful career as an actor despite early pressure to be typecast as a caricature. He has built a name for himself as an activist, and been inspirational to many. Any one of those challenges might have broken a pessimist, but George and his optimism persevered.

To Be Takei offers us a glimpse into George’s past and present. We see his day to day life with husband and manager Brad. We learn about his early realization that he was gay, and his work to play it straight in the public eye before officially coming out about ten years ago. We learn about his history as a TV and film actor, and his eventual foray into social media. We learn about his political work, including a city council campaign, transportation board appointment, and service on the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission under President Clinton. But the most important story we learn is his family’s interment in an Arkansas prison camp for Japanese Americans during World War II.

Telling this story is obviously Takei’s passion project, and it’s the thread that weaves To Be Takei together. The round up and relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II is a dark and little known narrative of the war. People were forced to leave their homes, farms, and businesses and live in camps with armed guards and barbed wire. Upon their release after the end of the war, they found few opportunities for homes and work thanks to the lingering racial fallout from the war. Frankly, it’s amazing to me that someone could not only come out of a situation like that with a positive outlook on life, but go on to blaze multiple trails as Takei has done. Though I certainly applaud his work in helping to overcome negative media portrayals of Asian Americans and promote marriage equality, it’s his work to educate people about his war experience that defines him.

This work is more important now than ever. Though Americans have come a long way in the past century, recent events like Ferguson prove that we still have a long way to go. Blatant, day-to-day racism against any non-white group is not as prevalent as it once was, but it’s obvious that white Americans in particular still have broad assumptions and stereotypes about different groups that they allow to dictate policy and action. Anyone who thinks Takei’s experience 60 years ago has no relevance today should take a good look at post 9–11 America. Sure, we weren’t rounding up Muslim Americans into prison camps, but anti-Muslim sentiment reached a fever pitch quickly, and manifested itself in several ugly incidents between citizens. We’re still walking a fine line, and Takei’s message of remembering the past or being doomed to repeat it is an important one.

So take a moment to get educated. Never fear, you’ll hear from Trek cast members, see George at conventions and on the Stern show, and so forth. But you’ll also learn something new about a truly interesting and inspirational person, and hopefully, find a new perspective on an important issue.

To Be Takei is in theaters and available on all VOD platforms, including iTunes and Amazon Instant Video, on August 22nd, 2014.

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