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‘No Ordinary Man’ Documentary Honors Transmasculine Musician Billy Tipton

No Ordinary Man documentary honors the late transmasculine jazz musician Billy Tipton.

Billy Tipton

Jazz musician Billy Tipton was known throughout the American rust belt from the ’30s to the ’60s, and later settled with his family in Spokane, Washington. Upon his untimely death in 1989, however, he was tactlessly outed as a trans man. His wife and son found themselves immediately dragged into the media limelight, forced to defend the life and legacy of their loved one.

Tipton’s story is at the center of the documentary “No Ordinary Man,” from directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt and made in close collaboration with one of the subjects and writers of the project, Amos Mac. Before embarking on the making of the film, they knew Tipton’s name and basic information, but lacked details regarding his trajectory as an artist and eventually as a beacon for many.

“As transmasculine people, [Amos and I], who transitioned in the time where the internet was available to us, Billy Tipton arrives on various lists and arrives in wormholes of research about transmasculine subjects from history,” Joynt said during a virtual Q&A as part of the International Documentary Association’s annual screening series. “But on a personal note, I really didn’t dive deep into Tipton’s history and legacy until joining this project and really thinking about what’s at stake when we approach stories like these,”

Once familiarized with Tipton, the creative team understood that his story needed a multi-angle approach, including, as Joynt puts it, “Tipton’s life from the lens of music and performance, from the lens of race and class, from the lens of a trans history as it’s being created, recognizing of course, that all of those lenses are already always overlapping.”

In their search for how to coalesce all these facets into this non-fiction portrait, one major factor was the realization that no footage of Tipton exists. This was at liberating, given they weren’t dealing with traditional archival material, but also forced them to devise their own formal construction to expand on the notion of representation.

“Early in our discussions about how we would represent him on screen in a way that felt true and real to our contemporary experience, we started talking about those big moments and milestones in his life that we wish we could have been a fly on the wall for, like being able to be with him when he meets another trans masculine person Buck Thomason, or when he gets to meet his idol, Duke Ellington,” said Chin-Yee. Watch the video of the team’s interview with filmmaker Yance Ford above.

Amos and Chin-Yee wrote six or seven scenes based on moments taken from the biography “Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton,” by Diane Middlebrook. To supplement their research, they visited Middlebrook’s archives at Stanford University, which includes plenty of Billy Tipton ephemera provided by the family during her writing process.

Rather than going with traditional reenactments, they decided to make their process transparent and inclusive, bringing in multiple transmasculine voices to partake in the conversation around Tipton’s significance for their community. The directors put out a casting call for transmasculine men to audition as if for a fictionalized movie of Tipton’s life.

For Joynt, the self-selection of an open call produced a camaraderie and willingness to engage between the different participants. The group featured young transmasculine people who didn’t know anything at all about Tipton, as well as those like Marquise Vilson, who has been present in the media depiction of transmasculine history for decades.

The dialogue between these distinct experiences — with Tipton as an anchor — was part of what the filmmakers aimed to probe. Their desire is for “No Ordinary Man” to be perceived as a work that centers individuals, in front of and behind the camera, from the community most directly impacted by the ramifications of the story being told.

“We hope at some point that our movie becomes dated when people watch it because these discussions and conversations are going to be so part of mainstream culture,” Chin-Yee said. “It’s going to just be part of the ongoing understanding of humanity as we move forward.”

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