Documentary Double Feature: “To Be Takei” and “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step”

George Takei would undoubtedly vocalize his saucy trademark, “Oh myyy,” on reading that he and Nat Hentoff make apt bedfellows for a double feature review.  But recent viewings of their biographical documentaries reveal a number of meaningful parallels.

Both Hentoff and Takei have successfully melded passions for entertainment and civil rights activism.  Their respective efforts for social equality were influenced by childhood experiences of prejudice and privation.  Both take pleasure in provocation for the causes they espouse, and each has a longtime supportive (and ofttimes sparring) partner.  Lastly, these documentaries are enjoyable and enlightening, even as they shy away from negativity.

Considering that Hentoff made his early mark in jazz criticism, while Takei was Mister Sulu in the original Star Trek television series, it’s no surprise that Hentoff’s documentary is more cerebral, while To Be Takei is more fun.

Hentoff’s tale, The Pleasures of Being Out of Step, is director David L. Lewis’ first full-length feature.  Yet, already Lewis shows mastery of the documentary form.  We effectively learn 89-year-old Hentoff’s story through a mixture of decades-old archival footage, conversations with music critics and former colleagues, and interviews with Hentoff and his wife Margot.

A young Nat Hentoff with clarinetist Edmond Hall
A young Nat Hentoff with clarinetist Edmond Hall, as shown in “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step”

Hentoff grew up in Depression-era Boston, where his father had two businesses that failed.  As a Jew in one of America’s most anti-Semitic cities, Hentoff quickly discovered the ugliness of bigotry.

By the 1950’s, he was a columnist for the famed alternative weekly, The Village Voice.  During this decade, he also edited Down Beat and co-founded The Jazz Review, two seminal music publications.  In these capacities and other journalistic roles, Hentoff formed relationships with key figures such as Malcolm X, Lenny Bruce, Miles Davis, and Charles Mingus.  In jazz circles, Hentoff remains highly esteemed for the substance and clarity of his profiles and liner notes.

In showing this aspect of Hentoff’s life, Pleasures truly shines, using images from the Civil Rights movement and clips of performances by jazz greats like Billie Holiday.  Commendably, we observe that Hentoff was willing to put his money where his mouth (or pen) was, getting fired from Down Beat magazine for hiring a dark-skinned woman.

Though a love of jazz and the U.S. Constitution may seem a curious admixture, we learn that in Hentoff’s mind, these two things form a natural combination.  For Hentoff, unfettered freedom of speech and freedom to improvise together compose the core of these two uniquely American contributions to world history and culture.  As such, it feels natural to devote energy both to championing the musicianship of Count Basie and to defending the rights of expression of neo-Nazis.

Unflatteringly, the documentary hints that Hentoff may have been on the wrong side of history at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, but we never learn much about this.  There are also intimations that he has struggled with depression and alcoholism, but this, too, is skated over.

More importantly, I wish director Lewis would’ve revealed more of the cognitive processes that led to Hentoff’s stances on hot-button issues.  For instance, Hentoff refers to himself as an atheist, yet we never hear how this informs his views.  However, Pleasures does score intellectual points in allowing Hentoff to twice reference James Madison as a guiding light.  Hentoff cites this Founding Father’s fear of majoritarianism as a motivating force for his own efforts to allow even unpopular voices to be heard.

Hentoff at work in Greenwich Village
Hentoff at work in Greenwich Village

As my host and fellow critic Ken Morefield pointed out in his review of Pleasures, we do hear some details about Hentoff’s self-identification as a pro-lifer.  For his anti-abortion position, Hentoff has taken considerable heat from other journalists with whom he normally shares a leftward tilt.  Even here, though, I would’ve appreciated more philosophical context and less focus on the apparently reflexive, unreflective flak from his colleagues.  Pleasures clocks in at a lean 87 minutes, so surely we could’ve endured several more minutes of onscreen time for greater depth of exposition.

Where Nat Hentoff sometimes alienates, George Takei unfailingly charms.  The former Star Trek actor is now a master of social media, with over 8 million “likes” on Facebook from admirers of his daily doses of silly humor or serious activism.  Even better are the times when he blends the two.  For instance, when NBA player Tim Hardaway publicly expressed his loathing of gay people, Takei lampooned him with a hilarious video swooning over Hardaway and other sweaty basketball players.

As Lewis succeeded with Hentoff’s story, director Jennifer M. Kroot manages a winsome biography of Takei, combining day-in-the-life filming of George and his husband Brad, clips from movies and TV programs in which Takei starred, historical footage of WW2-era America, and interviews with family and former Star Trek cast members.

We learn why Takei has become a potent spokesperson about the indignities and trauma suffered by Japanese-Americans in WW2 internment camps.  Takei, his parents, and siblings were forced from their Los Angeles home and business in 1942, spending time behind barbed wire in Arkansas and Northern California.

During the course of To Be Takei, we additionally find out that Takei’s second-class status didn’t end in 1945.  As a rising actor, Takei relates how he felt compelled to accept grotesquely stereotypical roles, most notably in a pair of Jerry Lewis films, to advance his career.

In a similar vein, Takei long concealed his sexual orientation for the sake of his livelihood.  To illustrate this, Kroot smartly inserts an early excerpt from the Howard Stern radio program in which Takei flatly rejects the notion that he’s gay.  Never mind that Takei was already in a committed relationship with Brad at the time.

George and Brad Takei
George and Brad Takei

Despite these somber elements, the tone of To Be Takei remains steadfastly upbeat.  This is also the impression of Takei that we’re left with; as his husband points out, even Takei’s critiques of others end with a chuckle.

Of the two, Brad definitely seems the more detail-oriented and serious spouse, having endured a background (and sometimes denied) role to George’s more colorful public persona.  Happily, it seems that Brad has made his peace with this function and history, and one comes away from this film with the cheery sense that George and Brad are an adorable and adoring couple.  Indeed, the Takeis make it appear almost easy, laudably using both laughter and serious talk to make equality across sexual orientations and identifications a commonsensical conclusion.

The Pleasures of Being Out of Step:  3.5 out of 5 stars

To Be Takei:  3.5 out of 5 stars

(Parents’ guide:  Both films are unrated, but possess an F-bomb or two apiece, as well as brief violence or scenes of distress related to civil rights activism.  To Be Takei also has a modest bit of racy humor.  There’s nothing in either film to render them unsuitable for most teenaged viewers.)

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