“This film is the truth: it is the reality of our culture and Black culture and who we are as humans,” says filmmaker D Smith of her documentary Kokomo City, an intimate snapshot of Black trans sex workers in New York and Georgia. Refreshing and often funny, the film shows the reality of four women’s lives – “stripped down, no politics, no talking points” – via the lens of a fellow Black trans woman.
A first-time filmmaker, Smith previously had a career as a Grammy-winning music producer, working with artists including Lil Wayne, Janelle Monáe and Timbaland. When she transitioned, she was forced out of the industry, resulting in financial and artistic destitution.
“I nearly lost my life because I was so depressed, because I wasn’t able to do what I do, which is create,” Smith says of this time. “Having the opportunity to do Kokomo City was a second chance for me.”
Smith had the idea for the film while reckoning with the possibility of turning to sex work after losing her music career. She found her subjects – Daniella Carter, Liyah Mitchell, Dominique Silver and Koko Da Doll – online, reaching out to them over Instagram or YouTube.
“I let them know from the jump that this is not going to be a conventional transgender documentary,” she explains. “So often we’re depicted as full of trauma, which is true. But I wanted to show more of a vibrant side, more transparent and tangible.”
The documentary is conversational, confessional and sometimes even gossipy, as the women talk about their sex work, relationships and day-to-day lives while lounging on sofas or soaking in the bath. Daniella is shown skipping along a sidewalk in workout clothes – a vignette that is striking for its normality.
“It was great to show that easy reality,” says Smith of this section. “How humanising was that, to see her with a Nike sports bra in the broad daylight enjoying herself?”
Throughout the film there’s a palpable trust between filmmaker and subject. This is all the more remarkable considering that Smith also features the women’s cis male clients, who speak frankly about their attraction to Black trans women.
“People really want the liberation to express themselves,” Smith says of gaining the trust of her subjects to share their stories. “But you have to be brave. And you have to show that this is the way. When I brought the idea as a trans woman, I think people felt empowered and inspired by that.”
The film presents complex ideas about gender and sexuality in the Black community, and the unique difficulties faced by those who break the mould.
“It’s long rooted in our culture: we’re not supported as children emotionally or coddled intellectually,” Smith says of Black childhood trauma.
“Because of that, it’s very difficult to express ourselves, whether it’s emotional, or sexual, or spiritual. Not to victimise us as Black people, but this is just one of the realities of our upbringing. So to have the opportunity to liberate oneself is a gift.”
For Smith, this personal liberation is inextricably linked to creative freedom, which she found again when making the film. Shot in crisp black and white, it mixes the style of countercultural documentaries like Marc Singer’s Dark Days with the exuberance of a reality TV show, aided by Smith’s pitch-perfect music supervision.
“I wanted to create a documentary that I would want to watch and that I know my cousins or friends would want to watch,” Smith says of this vibrant stylistic mix.
“People watch reality shows, social media, movies… I wanted to combine those things, because I personally appreciate all of them and I understand how all of them could impact society.”
One of the women featured, Koko Da Doll, was tragically killed as a result of gun violence earlier this year. One of 133 reported trans people lost to violence in 2023 alone. “She couldn’t wait to tell her story. I think that she’s still proud,” says Smith of Koko.
Although she acknowledges the often-brutal reality of trans life today, Smith firmly believes that the good outweighs the bad – and that her film reflects this.
“I must be a little optimistic by saying we are on the precipice of a breakthrough, as queer people,” she says.
“There is a shift happening, where we are getting a lot of true, authentic allies. I think what’s making our enemies seem bigger is just the amplification that they have through social media and in media itself. But it’s really not most people.”
Kokomo City also represents a perception shift for Smith herself. “I was a bit arrogant at the beginning, thinking I was going to save the day, or save them from something,” she says of the four women in the film.
“But it was reversed for me because I learned so much from them. And I gained so much spiritually and emotionally. These girls don’t get protection or acknowledgement, but look how brilliant they are. Who doesn’t want to be their friends? Who doesn’t want them to be safe?”
“That’s the whole point,” Smith concludes. “Not to preach or to beg for equality. It’s just to show exactly who they are, and let people see that.”
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