History is often dictated by those who hold power. As a result, the contributions of those not considered part of the majority are often erased. Directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt’s No Ordinary Man confronts one of these egregious erasures by giving the legacy of jazz musician Billy Tipton the proper spotlight it deserves.
A revered musician who made a name for himself in the 1940s and 1950s, Tipton’s death ended up overshadowing his numerous accomplishments. Unbeknownst to his fellow musicians, or even his wife and children for that matter, Tipton was a trans man. This revelation created a stir in the media as Tipton was unfairly portrayed as a woman who was “passing” as a man to get ahead industry. The sensational nature in which the story was reported robbed him of his identity at the very moment when he could no longer speak up for himself.
Chin-Yee and Joynt use their documentary as a vessel for Tipton to reclaim his voice. Enlisting the help of several trans actors and musicians, who are introduced under the guise of auditioning to play Tipton in a film, No Ordinary Man pieces together key moments of the artist’s life. In doing so Chin-Yee and Joynt present an intriguing look at the ways in which trans individuals are often forced to put on a performance of assimilation. Being their true self is often deemed a threat to the patriarchal views that govern society.
In hearing how Tipton managed to navigate such strict societal views, it is easy to see why he became an inspirational icon for generations of trans individuals. Finding a rather inventive way to bring Tipton’s legacy to life, No Ordinary Man manages to tackle various issues that still impact the trans community to this day. Touching on everything from the importance of literally finding one’s voice to the way the narrative of trans men is often told in relation to the ci-gender women in their life, the film provides a well-rounded look at those who often go unseen. No Ordinary Man succeeds in re-establishing Tipton’s legacy and the path he helped pave for future generations.