Spokane resident Billy Tipton Jr. never knew how much of an icon his father was. That is, until filmmakers Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt, along with writer Amos Mac, showed him a collection of interviews of trans artists and activists contemplating what they would say and ask Billy Tipton if he were still alive today.
Tipton Jr. stood in his living room holding an iPad as he listened to people speak about his father with more warmth and curiosity than anyone had before. The discussion of his father that Tipton Jr. was accustomed to was rooted in the biting spotlight of national scandal. A spotlight that up to this point has been tragically one-dimensional focused solely on the fact that Tipton had spent his adult life presenting as male despite having been assigned female at birth.
They didn’t want to know the usual questions regarding how Tipton had concealed his female body from his friends and family, what his motivation was or why his family insisted on still calling him father.
What they wished to know was about his life on the road, playing in jazz bands during the 1940s, sometimes alongside the likes of musicians like Duke Ellington. They wished they could let Tipton ask them questions about the trans experience. For Tipton Jr., these questions were as surprising as they were healing.
Healing seems to be the dream behind this documentary. Healing for Tipton’s family who were dragged into the spotlight soon after Tipton’s death and subsequent outing when EMTs had to strip his shirt off to attempt CPR. Healing for Tipton’s story, which has primarily identified Tipton as a woman who had tricked everyone into thinking he was a man. Healing for a trans community that continues the fight for its humanity.
Really, this documentary isn’t so much a retelling of Tipton’s life as it is a discussion of how the world interprets the lives of trans people. Although the film does feature a large amount of archival footage and new footage shot around Spokane (Tipton’s home after he decided to retire from music and settle down to have a family), the true heart of the documentary is in the interviews of trans people as they reflect on how the world sloppily grappled with Tipton’s controversial identity, as it had done with many other trans people whose identities were cast into public light without their consent.
Almost all of the interviewees point out the emphasis placed on deceit when trans people have been outed in the public eye. Tipton was never famous for his talent as a musician or his life as a devoted father to three adopted sons. He was famous for how he “fooled” everyone, “tricking” even those closest to him. The tragedy of Tipton’s story is that what he lived as his truth was labeled after his death as his shocking, lifelong lie.
“No Ordinary Man” is very conventional in terms of its craft, relying mostly on talking head interviews and narrations over archived footage and photos. But what it achieves in terms of discussion eclipses its lack of interesting visual storytelling. It sets the record straight for the first time and takes a critical look at how our culture, nationally and locally, has viewed trans life. It is a reflective and inspiring documentary for anyone curious to hear the truth of Tipton’s story, whether you have never heard of him or if you can remember when his story garnered national attention. For Spokane residents, it is a particularly special watch as it literally hits home.
“No Ordinary Man” opens today at the Magic Lantern Theater. Check with the theater this weekend for possible Q&As with the filmmakers and Tipton family.
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