Review: No Ordinary Man (2020)
It was a rainy Sunday yesterday and my mind has been in that frustrating place where it is both exhausted and overactive. I've spent the majority of the past week making myself very busy and a lot of that effort has finally caught up with me. So, in order to intellectually engage and be lazy at the same time, I decided to do something I haven't done in about two years: go to a movie theater.
I am not a movie guru and I probably haven't seen whatever movie you are about to recommend. But I do occasionally like to immerse in another cinematic world, especially when I feel like I'll never get another chance to do so. This is the case with directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt's No Ordinary Man (2020), which is playing for only a few days at my local art hub, Hartford's Real Art Ways. The film is a collaborative history and documentary of Billy Tipton, a trans musician active in the mid-twentieth century who was notable for his jazz and swing. Real Art Ways provides the following description of the film:
American jazz musician Billy Tipton developed a reputable touring and recording career in the mid-twentieth century, along with his band The Billy Tipton Trio. After his death in the late 80s, it was revealed that Tipton was assigned female at birth, and his life was swiftly reframed as the story of an ambitious woman passing as a man in pursuit of a music career.
The genre-defying documentary NO ORDINARY MAN seeks to correct that misrepresentation by collaborating with trans artists. As they collectively celebrate Tipton’s story as a musician living his life according to his own terms, they paint a portrait of a trans culture icon. NO ORDINARY MAN features leading voices and breakout stars in the trans community, including Marquise Vilsón, Scott Turner Schofield, Susan Stryker, C. Riley Snorton, and Thomas Page McBee, among others.
No Ordinary Man is a really smart documentary because it is a meta-commentary on trans life rather than the more conventional documentary-biography. Instead of “recovering” a likeness to Billy Tipton through a biopic, the documentary shows a range of trans masculine people “auditioning” for the role of Billy. As a trans masculine person watching, I also felt like “I am auditioning for the role of Billy Tipton.” The documentary played with the idea that trans histories are not just told one way for one audience, but rather have individual contours that shape how we understand our own relationships to the past. I particularly liked that the documentary showed the bones of the production process; the skeletal feel of watching Amos Mac (co-writer and co-founder of the trans magazine Original Plumbing) and Chase Joynt (co-director) chat with the actors about how Billy might have felt or how Billy might have carried himself in a specific scene gave an immediate sense of shared intimacy between actor, producer, and audience. The incredible Marquise Vilsón, in particular, took the charge of that intimacy very seriously in his understanding of Billy’s life.
The tag of the film is What happens when you die and lose control of your story? This is not an uncommon fear for any human being; in the film Stephan Pennington explains the anxiety that marginalized people have around being erased from the dominant white, cis, male hegemonic narrative of history. Pennington remarks that when we (trans people and marginalized people more broadly) are told that we are only a reality of the present moment (i.e. that trans people couldn’t have possibly existed in the past), we are being denied roots, tradition, and memory. We are being temporally isolated not only from the past, but from the future. As queer, trans, and BIPOC historians and archivists are aware, this erasure of our histories is purposeful; it keeps marginalized people a fiction.
No Ordinary Man contends with this loss but it does not seek to recover the life of Billy Tipton in the way that many queer and trans histories do. Instead, the film meditates on the much more frightening and consequential question of who gets a history at all? Who gets to retell those histories? Who gets to hear them and teach them? Today, a review of No Ordinary Man by G. Allen Johnson was published in “Datebook,” a series in the San Fransisco Chronicle. Johnson’s title gives away his feelings: “Review: ‘No Ordinary Man’ doesn’t do justice to transgender musician Billy Tipton.” Johnson bases this injustice on the fact that the documentary is “not really about Billy Tipton.” Instead, Johnson says that the documentary is only about “how transgender representation is perceived in the media, chiefly between 1989, when Tipton died, and current times.” His main objection is that the trans masculine people who were included in the documentary seem not “to know anything about Tipton. In fact, many seem to have been told about Tipton shortly before the cameras rolled.” It is clear that many of the people interviewed and who are cast to audition for Billy have not only read Diane Middlebrook’s extremely problematic biography on Tipton, Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton, but actively critique Middlebrook's handling of trans life. Others mention that Billy Tipton was one of the first trans masculine people they had encountered in the news, on tv, or in media when they were coming of age. When the documentary’s tag line asks What happens when you die and lose control of your story, it asks us to consider precisely the reaction of Johnson’s review: in a film about a trans person, co-written and co-directed by trans people, and starring trans actors, scholars, and fans, one wonders who Johnson believes could have done justice to Tipton’s story. As a trans person watching, I felt glad this story was in trans hands. Perhaps the conceit of the film is precisely that.
There is so little space (still) for trans histories, presents, and futures to center joy. Billy Tipton’s life as a trans person was only discovered in his death, without his consent, perhaps by the coroner who investigated his body and gained fame on “revealing” what was only Tipton’s to know. I am reminded of trans poet Miller Oberman’s extraordinary poem “Taharah”, specifically these lines:
I’m wondering about you, chevra kadisha,
the “holy society,” who will prepare my body,
once I’m no longer in it, for the earth.
I often consider this of myself. Though I am not Jewish, Oberman’s poem speaks to me as another trans person. I read in it my complete fear that my body, in death, will be at its most vulnerable, and I will no longer be able to mediate how others read or treat my body. Sometimes, I think, trans history is more like poetry. Tipton’s death did not reveal what Tipton himself did not already know. In order for Tipton to live freely and authentically, he had to figure out how to "pass" and fly under the radar. This harsh compromise leaves many trans histories unknown, and in that way, the equally harsh circumstance of being dressed for death, being seen, being scrutinized, being found out, being exposed - being unexpected, as Oberman writes “If I am unexpected, let me not seem / grotesque to you, as I have to many people” - is the brutalizing truth of being trans in a world that does not accommodate our bodies and lives and deaths.
I felt that No Ordinary Man centered the joy of Tipton’s life as a thriving jazz musician and balanced that joy with the love and admiration of trans people looking back on his life today. If you can make it out to see the film, I recommend it. Here is the trailer: