Trans sex workers tell it like it is in ‘Kokomo City’

“Kokomo City.” Photo via Magnolia Pictures/Facebook.

It’s probably rare for a film review to begin with a news report about a real-world crime, but “Kokomo City” is a rare film.

On April 18, a transgender woman known as Koko Da Doll was fatally shot in Atlanta. She was the third Black transgender sex worker killed in the city – and the 10th trans, nonbinary, or gender-nonconforming person to die by violence in the US – to that date in 2023.

It was a story that made limited headlines, but comparatively far more (unfortunately) than usually accompany the killings of Black transgender sex workers; that’s because Koko – whose “non-performance” name was Rasheeda Williams – was one of four trans women, from both Atlanta and New York City, profiled in the Sundance-honored documentary “Kokomo City,” which went into limited theatrical release on Aug. 4. and is now available via digital and VOD. The film, which was executive produced by boundary-breaking queer multi-hyphenate talent Lena Waithe (among others), offers a remarkably candid, completely unfiltered, and entirely non-judgmental portrait of its subjects as they share the experiences and observations that have occurred on the job.

In the film, Koko – along with fellow sex workers Daniella Carter, Liyah Mitchell, and Dominique Silver – provide extensive interviews in which they “get real” about the perspective on life bestowed upon them by their work. Sometimes horrifically shocking, sometimes unflinchingly blunt, their anecdotes paint a portrait of society seen from the bottom up; but it’s a far cry from the hand-wringing and moralizing some might expect to accompany a film about such a subject, instead giving these four fully self-aware individuals a chance to sound off about all the hypocrisies and social stigmas that define and constrain our culture’s view of sex in general, and queer sex in particular, while revealing the intelligence and strong sense of self – and yes, the strong sense of humor, too – necessary to survive as a member of one of the world’s most widely disregarded classes of human being. It’s transgressive in a way that many will find refreshing, even thrilling, but others will find appalling.

As much as we might wish otherwise, most of us are likely to believe that the audience for “Kokomo City” probably won’t include the people who most need to see it. Those who are predisposed to restrictive judgments around sex work and trans people are not likely to add it to their streaming queues – a shame if only for the loss of their own opportunity to recognize and empathize with the humanity of people they would otherwise demonize in their imaginations. That doesn’t matter, however, to the movie’s director – two-time Grammy-nominated producer, singer and songwriter D. Smith, who made history as the first trans woman cast on a primetime unscripted TV show. 

For her feature film directorial debut, Smith aimed to elevate her subject’s voices not just as an expression of queer experience, but of the wider Black experience, as well. Couch-surfing with friends over a three-year period as she collected the material for her movie, she was concerned, first and foremost, with delivering the story these four women had to tell. In its final form, her documentary is a testament to individual truth within a dichotomy that has no space for it; the Black community as a whole, itself ostracized and oppressed within mainstream culture while subject to the strict norms of acceptability built into its own traditions and heritage, has long held a particular stigma against queer sexuality. As Smith offers in her press notes, “So many of our Black children grow up afraid and confused because of traditional values or admissible violence against them, sometimes leading to death. [It’s] a conversation that’s been avoided for many, many years [that] has now taken center stage.”

To hear her four interviewees tell it, those hard-and-fast-beliefs disappear quickly behind closed doors – but even so, in public, the prejudice holds fast. Indeed, Smith offered five other directors the opportunity to helm the project, and all of them balked before she decided to do it herself.

“I went out and bought a camera and a nice lens and filmed it myself.,” she says. “No assistant, no lighting person, no editor. Just the vision of a truth.”

Part of that truth, she says, was “to create a film that people outside of the LGBTQ+ community could be drawn to,” but she also wanted to be authentic in her presentation of these women. She was asking them to be real, so she had to be, too.

“At the time of [the film’s] conception,” she says, “there was a lot of transgender content with this narrative I call the ‘red carpet narrative.’ It’s when a fierce PR team puts a trans woman in a fabulous gown and has her speak like a pageant finalist. That’s not our real experience.”

 She wanted to present something different. “I wanted to feel something untampered with. Something that looks like my actual experience. Something that we can all find ourselves in. Something without all the rules and laws that separate us as people of color. I wanted those walls down. In this film, I was able to share the private lives of four transgender sex workers who are never represented publicly. I offered the girls freedom. Freedom to talk like us. Look like us. Don’t worry about the politics. Forget about makeup. Don’t worry about calling your glam squad today. Just tell your story. I wanted to humanize the transgender experience.”

Captured in stark-but-stylish black-and-white, “Kokomo City” does exactly that. Putting the spotlight on four women who are anything but the so-called “norm” and who are accustomed to having their voices silenced, or at least ignored, Smith gives us a raw-yet-deeply considered perspective that challenges the audience by taking them out of their comfort zone, yet never ceases to be entertaining.

To be sure, there is an almost a joyous vibe to “Kokomo City,” no doubt largely due to the freeing, cathartic sense of unburdening its subjects must have felt in getting the chance to share their truth with the world.

Sadly, that joy must now be forever tempered by the knowledge that Koko, whose life shines so brightly from the screen, has been lost to us – who, though authorities say there is no evidence her death was motivated by homophobia or transphobia, is nevertheless yet another victim of the deeply embedded hate and violence that haunts our culture and makes movies like this one seem so very, very precious.

At the same time, hearing her voice ring among the others in Smith’s wildly entertaining documentary – which won the Sundance Film Festival’s NEXT Innovator Award and NEXT Audience Award and has gone on to win acclaim at other festivals including the Berlinale and LA’s OutFest – gives it an even greater sense of urgency, a higher imperative to present both the beauty and vulnerability of trans women, and turns the film into a celebration of her unquenchable light.

It also introduces Smith as a filmmaker to be reckoned with, and we are excited to see where she takes us next.

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