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Kokomo City

Fresh, frank and unapologetic documentary about four trans women was directed by a trans music-producer-turned-filmmaker struggling to make ends meet - on VoD on Monday, September 11th

A bleak statistic that emerged in 2015 claimed that the average life expectancy for black trans women is 35, which equates to living in the 16th century. Even though the claim has since been contested as not entirely accurate, it is still representative within some cohorts of this community, specifically sex workers, the subject matter of a powerful and candid documentary, Kokomo City. Liyah Mitchell, a large feature in the documentary, poignantly states that if she carried on with sex worker, she is likely end up dead. Sadly, her words resonate even more acutely with the recent death of another of the documentary’s subject Koko Doll who was shot in a hate-motivated crime.

Kokomo City is by first-time director D. Smith, previously working in the music industry as a producer for the likes Lil Wayne and Andre 3000, yet once she started her transition found herself ostracised, jobless and eventually homeless. Whilst couch surfing, she turned her hand to documenting her personal research into sex work, considering it as a possible, if not one of the only ways to make money. Through Instagram and YouTube, she managed to locate her interviewees; black trans sex workers Koko, Liyah as well as Daniella Carter and Dominique Silver – from Atlanta and New York. D.Smith took on a softer approach, seeking to make her interviewees feel comfortable and trust her in a bid to reveal more of themselves. Removing any formality in the interview process by placing the camera at lower angles and striking a conversational rapport.

Her strategy paid off with exceptional results. For a debut, D.Smith has impressively captured the essence of her subjects likened to a seasoned director. She has created a documentary that is unique and fresh, garnering confessions that are incredibly frank and authentic telling a story that feels very urgent. Unabashed, brazen comments such as “they want to see a pretty-ass girl with a big dick” are regularly and unapologetically blurted out, but ultimately offer an enlightening picture of the inner workings of the profession. Simultaneously these tête-à-têtes offer perceptive reflections about the trans and black experiences from individuals like themselves in the periphery, looking in.

We gain further insight of the internal machinations of their male clients and how deeply suppressed these individuals can be. In an eye-opening moment, Dominique exclaims after detailing a difficult altercation “violence doesn’t happen before the orgasm. It happens after,” suggesting their clients’ instant feelings of vehement remorse is contributed to widespread internalised trans/bi/homophobia. It would appear their very existence is threatening, questioning the very foundations of black heteronormativity.

Shot in black and white, we are treated to montages of the women flaunting their bodies; beautiful bodies that they have worked hard for, of which D.Smith encourages them to show off and celebrate. Furthermore, there is lightness permeating throughout, amplified by an upbeat musical score, but wholly attributed to the subjects themselves: their vivaciousness, the way the inject humour even when detailing of the most life-threatening of encounters. Their openness to reveal themselves and attempts to remove any shame instils a sense of ownership of their actions, consequently, providing a more positive attitude towards sex work.

This documentary is a vehicle for D.Smith to highlight and empower these marginalised lives, attempting to replace any victimhood with agency, and autonomy.

Kokomo City is on BFI Player on Monday, September 11th. Also available on other platforms. It shows at the Doc@PÖFF of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

By Daniel Theophanous - 02-08-2023

Daniel has contributed to publications such as Little White Lies, BFI, Tape Collective, Hyperallergic, DMovies and many others. A lot of Daniel’s work is focused on LGBTQI+ cinema and hosts a podcas...

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