Black transgender women are dying at astronomical rates, typically at the hands of Black men. However, no one talks directly to them about their experiences. With her directorial debut Kokomo City, Grammy-nominated producer, singer and songwriter D. Smith is turning her lens on Black trans women. These sex workers, living and working in New York City and Georgia, share stories about their upbringing, aspirations, violence and everything in between.
Told in striking black and white that in many ways pays homage to the ’70s, Smith’s documentary focuses on four main subjects, Daniella Carter, Koko Da Doll, Liyah Mitchell and Dominique Silver. Kokomo City, opens with Liyah. Stretching her statuesque body across her bed, a stuffed bear lingering near her, she recalls a moment when she had to physically fight a client who entered her home with a gun. Though the story is alarming, Liyah remembers it with such wit and grace that the audience quickly forgets that it was one of the most terrifying moments of her life.
But that’s the point of Kokomo City — named for blues musician Kokomo Arnold’s song, “Sissy Man Blues.” As the women, all glammed up and lounging in their negligees and glam, recount their experiences with down-low men, judgmental ciswomen, and everything in between, they offer us a little bit of who they are in a world that has often tried to discredit and erase them.
If you consider yourself an ally or pay any attention to the goings-on in the LGBTQ+ community, none of what these women are saying is shocking. It’s no secret that straight-presenting down-low men (aka trade) make up most of their clientele. The risks these women take when engaging in this type of work which could cost them their freedom or their lives is also a reality. Yet Kokomo City is rare because Smith does not share these women’s stories for entertainment value. The director allows them to be who they are while offering the audience an opportunity to listen or not.
With a breezy 73-minute run time, Smith also invites in the perspective of trans-attracted men, who ponder what it means to accept themselves and how they contend with the world looking down on them for their sexuality. However, these perspectives don’t stand up as strongly as the anecdotes that Daniella, Koko, Liyah and Domonique offer. The women have so many rich tales and such though-proving quotes that the men’s perspectives, though necessary in discussing homophobia and hatred, don’t fit well in this particular narrative.
The audience will want to get back to the women offering startling takes on the liberation and oppression of Black women, our collective obsession with who other people are sleeping with, and why we continue to force ourselves into a mold created by white supremacists.
Despite the scenes that don’t quite fit with the others, D. Smith’s Kokomo City is a unique and refreshing film that allows Black trans women to speak for themselves. It’s up to us to not only listen but to empathize, create connections and speak up.
Kokomo City premiered on Jan. 21, 2023 at Sundance Film Festival.