Kokomo City is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
In the extraordinary monologue that opens D. Smith's debut feature Kokomo City (2023), a stunning Black woman named Liyah Mitchell shares just one true story from her career as a trans sex worker. It would be a crime to give away all the details of this tale—the telling of which Smith intercuts with playful animations and staged reenactments—but it rollicks from anonymous hookup to transactional sex, detours into serious life-threatening danger, then circles back through grace and greed to arrive finally at an absolutely hilarious punchline.
There's more I could say about this monologue if I wanted to give away its pleasures—like how it seems to encapsulate so much of the experience of the Black trans women Kokomo City celebrates—but the most important thing to say about it is that Smith was wise to open her movie with it. Thirty seconds into the intensely intimate experience of listening to Liyah tell her frank and funny story—while she curls up on her bed in short shorts and a crop-top T-shirt—we are in, all the way. We want, and we will get, more of these stories, more of these insights, more time spent in the company of women as brave and vivacious as this.
And we want more from Smith, a trans woman and Grammy-nominated music producer and singer making as exciting a directing debut as we've seen since Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It. That's a bold comparison, perhaps, but it's one Kokomo City—with its energy, inventiveness, chutzpah, and beautiful monochrome cinematography—not only invites but earns.
Primarily composed of wonderfully candid interviews with four Black trans sex workers in New York and Georgia, Kokomo City takes its title from a '30s Black bluesman named Kokomo Arnold, whose "Sissy Man Blues" functions as just one of Smith's perfectly sly needle-drops. ("I woke up this mornin' with my pork grindin' business in my hand," Arnold sang. "Lord, if you can't send me no woman, please send me some sissy man.") The song speaks to several of Smith's themes here, including the complicated place trans women have in Black culture, and the fact that this complication is not a recent invention. But primarily—like most everything else in Kokomo City—the song's frankness functions as a celebration of being unafraid to not only live your truth, but speak it. ("Be true to yourself" is something we hear from several of the sex workers, and even from a few of their clients.)
In addition to Liyah (from Decatur), we meet Daniella Carter (from Queens), Dominique Silver (from Manhattan), and Koko Da Doll (from Atlanta), and their stories are all different. (Koko, for example, started when her family was homeless, and sex work was a way to get her mom and sisters out of the truck they were sleeping in and into a motel. Dominique, on the other hand, found her way into sex work after figuring out that's how a lot of her friends were suddenly able to afford their surgeries.) But their stories all share certain elements, including a determination to live authentically, an impregnable pragmatism about the purpose of their work—"Get paid!"—and an awareness of the constant threat of danger from clients for whom trans attraction is still a source of shame. ("Violence doesn't happen before the orgasm, it happens after," says Dominque.)
These crude and candid stories are often harrowing, frequently hilarious, and sometimes heartbreaking, leading to sensitive and profound observations about Black culture, sexual relations, and gender identity. (An extemporaneous monologue Daniella delivers from the bathtub moves through humor and fury and rhetoric like fine and fiery spoken-word poetry. And elsewhere, she speaks more tenderly and painfully about her realization of how—in transitioning—she became just another Black man abandoning her mother, as so many others had done: "That has to hurt, as a Black woman hurt by Black men, to give birth to a Black man, and he says, ‘I’m not here to protect you.'") Throughout, the film—by capturing the candor, courage, wisdom, and vivacity of these women—puts shame to the hateful notion that there is anything fake or unnatural about being trans. We should all hope to be this authentic, this fully and consciously and successfully ourselves.
The women are the stars of Kokomo City, but Smith spends some time with the men as well: some of whom are open and embracing about their desires ("Don't live a double-life," they say), and others who are still trapped in restricted notions of Black masculinity. The saddest of these is Lo, a man Smith returns to throughout the film, who is obsessed with a trans woman he met on-line. Lo goes back and forth between rhapsodizing about her beauty and insisting—protesting far too much—that he has absolutely no interest in ever touching any of her genitalia. Lo is right at the border of allowing himself to accept his desires, but he's never dared to actually meet this woman, and we know he probably never will. (Significantly, every time we see Lo—whether drinking in a bar, or sitting fishing on a dock—he's totally alone.) Without offering a word of external commentary, Smith positions him as a sad, possibly tragic counterpoint to the people who dare to live their truths, no matter the consequences.
All of this Smith films in a gorgeous, ultra-high-contrast black-and-white, which makes the rich Black skin of her subjects glow against the bright halos of over-exposed backgrounds. It would be easy to mistake the intense intimacy of Smith's direction for the happy accidents of a first-time director. ("Before starting this project, I reached out to 5 directors asking if they would help film this project, they all said no," Smith writes, in a statement accompanying the press kit. "I went out and bought a camera and a nice lens and filmed it myself. No assistant, no lighting person, no editor. Just the vision of a truth.") But, however much a role accident played in the result, there is tremendous and deliberate art as well: careful and sensitive camera placement, playful and poignant juxtapositioning of images, clever and vibrant editing that imbues the entire film with energy and feeling and freshness. We should be grateful other directors turned Smith down, because what might have been a flat, talking-head documentary now feels like a visual and aural poem, bursting with unexpected beauty and uncompromised humanity.
And purpose. Smith wisely refrains from any editorializing in the film—we neither see nor hear her—but her determination to humanize these women, to capture their unfiltered stories and celebrate their courage comes through loud and clear. And the importance of this determinedly joyous film is underlined for those who stay through the credits, and read the dedication to Koko Da Doll—also known as Rasheeda Williams—who was shot to death in Atlanta just three months after the film she stars in premiered to acclaim and awards at Sundance.
“The movie sets the tone for people to open their hearts and be more compassionate, and these women being so transparent and visible has moved the needle much further along," Smith wrote in Variety, earlier this month. "But the truth of Koko’s death added an urgency to this film and their story.”