The movie is Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt’s “No Ordinary Man,” one of the best films I’ve ever seen about trans representation, reporting, and history. It takes the stale concept of a bio-doc and flips it to ask how we tell certain kinds of stories and what those choices do to underrepresented groups like trans masculine men. It’s moving and empowering, a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.
“No Ordinary Man” is the story of Billy Tipton, an admired jazz musician in the ‘40s and ‘50s. When he died in 1989, his wife and son by his side, the world learned that Billy was trans, and they learned about it in a way that’s jaw-dropping in its insensitivity. Billy’s son and wife were trotted around to all of the daily talk shows to give interviews about how Billy had “tricked” them for years, as almost every reporter misgendered Billy after death, speaking about what “she” did to her family. As someone who’s old enough to remember 1989, it was striking to see how poorly the media handled this story at this time, making it into tabloid fodder that feeds the belief that trans people are just tricksters who set out to fool others instead of living life the best way they know how.
Chin-Yee and Joynt tell Tipton’s story almost entirely through a group of trans masculine actors “auditioning” to be in a film about Tipton’s life. And so we hear snippets of a screenplay about Tipton that reimagines major events in his story without resorting to cheap recreations of them. It’s a brilliant move in terms of non-fiction filmmaking, taking Tipton’s life and filtering it down through art to another generation of men empowered by his story. And then those scenes are cut together with interviews with trans performers and authors on gender issues that help build the picture around Tipton’s story. Finally, the filmmakers spend time with a now-older Billy Jr., and the interviews with him are some of the most moving doc interviews I’ve seen in a very long time. He’s clearly still coming to terms with his father’s death and legacy.
Bio-docs often feel like they exist in a bubble like a history lesson. They’re often chronological and dry, forcing experts to tell a story of someone they never met. “No Ordinary Man” is vibrant, and alive. It’s evidence that it’s not the details of a life that matter but how those details impact people even decades after we’re gone.
Of course, arguably no one in the 20th century has had more impact than Martin Luther King Jr., the subject of Sam Pollard’s expertly made “MLK/FBI.” Told entirely through interviews over archival footage, Pollard’s film uses the fact that the FBI wiretapped and watched King for years as a foundation on which to discuss the role of our government in the civil rights movement and the shadows that haunted King as he tried so hard to pull this country to a better place. It is a finely tuned, perfectly edited film, one that builds to a remarkably current chapter about the power and need for legal protest, and what it says about the failures of a country that doesn’t encourage it.