International Documentary Festival Amsterdam: KOKOMO CITY Review
D. Smith's film shows a positive look at black trans sex workers.
Kokomo City follows the lives of four black transgender women who work as sex workers. These women, Daniella Carter, Koko Da Doll, Liyah Mitchell and Dominique Silver, frankly and vividly talk about their work, lives and passions.
Director D. Smith, herself a transgender woman, became interested in the subject of sex work after she lost her job in the music industry after transitioning. She thought about doing sex work and that started her relationship with the four women. With a camera in tow she herself shot most of the footage, which startles with its clair-obscur black and white photography. Smith makes their lives look like something out of a Mark Romanek video or a Dave La Chapelle fashion shoot. If anything else, this is the most aesthetically pleasing documentary of the year.
The heightened reality created by the glamorous photography stands in stark contrast with some of the stories. It can feel at times jarring, a glamorization of a life that at times is harsh. But if Smith at times seems to veer into exploitation, she always just steers clear of it. Some of the aspects of the film also seem to be designed to make a cis, straight, conservative audience uncomfortable, but if the final shot delivers one message clearly it is this one: see me for who I am, and if you don't like it, your loss.
The four interviewed women have fought hard to be where they are, and some of their stories are haunting, others are humorous, but they all share the same mindset. One of not only surviving but thriving. These aren't tales of sad, broken sex workers. If anything the vibe is bragadocious, even sometimes alienating others in their love-of-self. It might seem like a course correction for people who have been ostracized by different sections of society. They exist at the intersection of being discriminated against for their race, their gender and queerness, let alone their trade, so can you blame them for instead being proud of being black, trans, queer, women and sex workers?
The main problem of Kokomo City is when the camera steers away from the central four for context. A quarter of the film is focused on black men who sleep with trans women, and how they are perceived by their peers. It is necessary context, but their stories aren't as compelling as those of the main cast.
Especially the conversations with a music producer who is on the fence about dating a trans woman drag out too much, and takes away from the core tone of unapologetic pride. While other men, who are further in the process of dismantling heteronormative notions of masculinity, are more fun interview subjects. Still, Kokomo City might be the first documentary about black trans women or sex workers that doesn't focus solely on the hardships. It is not only a needed break from that narrative, the narrative that Smith sketches is much more compelling and lived-in.
- D. Smith
- Daniella Carter
- Koko Da Doll
- Liyah Mitchell