Mar 25, 2021

24FPS @ BFI Flare 2021: No Ordinary Man

Dir: Aisling Chin-Yee, Chase Joynt

I knew a little about Billy Tipton going into this film, which is to say that I basically knew the précis of what we discover is a rather controversial biography of him. It goes like this: Tipton was a trans man who was a fairly successful jazz musician in the 1940s and ’50s, and it was only with his death in 1989 that either the wider public or his wife and adopted children discovered the so-called ‘real’ identity he had been ‘hiding’. To be a hundred percent clear, there I am using the language of coverage at the time and that biography, trans men are men, trans women are women.

This documentary is, on its surface, a deeper telling of the story of Billy Tipton—a telling that acknowledges and celebrates his identity—but it is also much more than that. Aisling Chin-Yee, Chase Joynt and co-writer Amos Mac scrutinise and criticise the way Tipton’s life was framed in coverage after his death as, essentially, a long-running deception of the people around him. One clip, from a news show on E!, has sinister music behind the story, as if it’s something from a horror film. It’s worth noting that this characterisation of Tipton is rejected by his wife and son in archive footage, and by his son in new interviews for the film. They also relate that to the way trans identity is seen and talked about today “If I tell you who I am, I’m not lying” says one interviewee. More than that even, No Ordinary Man explores the issue of the erasure of trans history, and how that plays into the need for trans visibility and representation.

One of the way the film digs into these subjects is through auditioning trans actors to play Billy. The conceit reminds me of the documentary Casting Jon Benet, but it has much deeper resonance here because the directors talk with their auditionees about Tipton, what they already knew of his story, and how it relates to their own experiences. There are several great virtues to this idea, first, it completely gives the lie to the idea that cis people keep getting cast in trans roles because of some lack of talented trans actors, but much more important is the insight into how things are both different and the same for trans people now as when Tipton was alive.

The audition sequences are some of the film’s most riveting material, never more so than when the actors are playing out a sequence that seems mysterious to begin with. In it, Tipton indicates that he recognises something about a DJ he had never met before. It turns out that this is an imagined version of the only time that we know of that Tipton met another trans man. When the actors know this it entirely reframes the performances and leads to some deeply moving moments in which one in particular is overcome with the emotion of knowing that, just for a moment, Tipton knew he wasn’t the only person like himself. This, as much as any moment, show us the value of representation because that empathy just can’t be acted, and it’s a moment that must provoke empathy in its audience as well.

No Ordinary Man is a fascinating film about identity. I’m sure it will be a film that trans audiences identify with, and for cis audiences, it lays out so many nuanced issues of trans identity in such a directly emotional way, while also telling an interesting biographical story, that you can’t help but have a lot to reflect on long after the credits roll. 

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