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A Kaleidoscopic Portrait of Black Trans Women  

Punchy delivery styles, shimmering personalities and kaleidoscopic perspectives make up the soul of D. Smith’s gusty documentary Kokomo City, which chronicles the experiences of four Black trans women sex workers living in New York and Atlanta. The principal participants — Daniella Carter, Dominique Silver, Koko Da Doll and Liyah Mitchell — are an electric bunch, and the diversity of their testimonies propels this worthwhile project into refreshing, uninhibited territory.

From its opening moments, Kokomo City distinguishes itself from other documentaries — including its antecedent and most obvious point of comparison, Paris Is Burning. Instead of an expository voiceover or an establishing montage, we get Mitchell — sitting in her bedroom, hair wrapped in a silk scarf — telling us about a near-fatal encounter with a client. The story begins on a sober note and gains more levity as Mitchell burrows into the details of each scene: the client walking into her apartment, her split-second decision to steal his gun, the tussling that ensued in the hallway.

Kokomo City

The Bottom Line

Revelatory and uninhibited.

Venue:  Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Director: D. Smith

1 hour 13 minutes

When Mitchell recounts the moment she realized she was no longer in danger, her hands, decorated with long acrylic nails, become more animated. She dishes new details at a faster clip. Some points, like the click of an empty barrel or the sound of glass breaking, are bolstered by Roni Pillischer’s sound effects and Stacy Barthe’s funky music supervision. Re-enactments of the incident flash across the screen to hold our attention. You wonder: What could possibly happen next? Well, Mitchell, as she tells it, went back to the client, reinitiated contact and got the job done.

Smith’s documentary pulsates with this kind of low-key humor and editorial wit. The fears fueling Mitchell’s reaction at the sight of her client’s gun are real: Trans women, especially those in sex work, are wantonly abused and killed. We live in a time of unprecedented physical, psychological and legislative violence against trans people, particularly trans youth. At the top of this year, dozens of bills trying to restrict or criminalize transgender health access were introduced across 11 states. In a world that codes your existence as a threat, jokes and jest can be salves for processing harsh experiences. Smith calibrates her film accordingly, tinkering with sound effects, an eclectic soundtrack and low camera angles to reflect this duality of trans lives.

Kokomo City is a testament to the resilience of Smith and her participants. It is evidence of how they nurture beauty and softness in a callous world. The filmmaker is a Grammy-winning producer, who, after transitioning, struggled to meet her basic needs. Colleagues stopped calling and employment opportunities dried up. Smith started to run out of money and couldn’t find housing. Even this documentary tested her resolve, as she faced rejection from multiple directors whom she’d asked for help with her film. With few options, she took matters into her own hands: She bought a camera and started recording.  

Smith conducted the featured interviews in her participants’ homes or cars, private spaces that allow safety and freedom to embrace vulnerability. Her camera doubles as witness and invitation for deeper storytelling. The collected testimonies create a multi-dimensional portrait of what it means to be a contemporary Black trans woman, and add to Kokomo City’s raw perspective. Mitchell, Carter, Silver and Koko Da Doll take us through their introductions to sex work, try to reconcile the demands of survival with the risks of the job, offer the most authentic versions of themselves and express their variegated relationships to Black cis people.

It’s this latter point that Smith’s documentary is most interested in, stepping into relatively uncharted territory with grace and courage. Mitchell, Carter, Silver and Koko Da Doll speak candidly about how their clients, who are usually Black cis men, privately pursue them while publicly maligning them. They express a range of emotions — disappointment, sympathy, exasperation — toward the deep sexual and gender conservatism running through Black communities. Smith’s edits underscore the differing opinions among the women and mimics the natural cadence of their discussions.

Outside of Kokomo City’s core women, Smith also speaks to Black men about dating trans women and their thoughts on the rigidity of gender norms. These conversations are insightful bits that sometimes struggle to find a comfortable home within the project. You may find yourself missing Mitchell, Carter, Silver and Koko Da Doll when they aren’t onscreen or hoping for a sturdier connection between the two groups of subjects.

Several throughlines emerge throughout Kokomo City as these women share their experiences with familial rejection, masculine sexual anxiety and a retaliatory world threatened by the dissolution of the gender binary. Violence — both real and anticipated — is the most obvious thematic thread, but competing for space and attention is beauty. Smith rounds out the edges of Kokomo City by basking in the physical bodies of these women. The camera roams from the top of their heads to their toes, wanders across their chests and backsides, soaking up the details of defiance.

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