Grammy nominated singer songwriter D. Smith lost her connections to the music business when she decided to transition in 2014. She’s sprung back in a serious way, winning the audience awards at both the 2023 Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals for her filmmaking debut as director/cinematographer/editor/producer of a documentary focusing on four trans sex workers living in New York and Atlanta in “Kokomo City.”
Laura's Review: B
Artistically shot in black and white, “Kokomo City” is a lively interwoven portrait of four trans women speaking bluntly about sex, the dangers that they face and the contradiction of an oppressed black community yet oppresses those who dare to embrace their own truth. Smith wisely kicks off with the very effervescent Liyah Mitchell, her hair wrapped in a scarf, her lashes long, sitting on her bed telling us the tale of a trick gone wrong. Kneeling before a client prepared for oral sex, Liyah is horrified to see a large Glock wedged beside his thigh. Terrified, she tells us her first thought is ‘Bitch – grab the gun!,’ which she does, ending up in a full body contact battle, she and her john rolling down her stairs before he grabs the gun and drives off, Liyah ducking low so as not to be ‘drive-by’ed.’ Liyah makes her story visceral AND funny, ending with a capper proving truth truly is stranger than fiction.
We then meet Daniella Carter, Smith’s camera shooting over her shoulder into the mirror where she demonstrates a facial roller on her chin, extolling the virtues of smooth skin (and cheekily requesting an endorsement fee for the product she’s using). The Queens native will later be found in the bath, her hair gathered in a cap, speaking her truth with startling insight, a soliloquy worthy of college thesis. Koko Da Doll is frank about the desirability of both big breasts and a big dick for the men who seek out trans women and we’ll learn that the most thuggish men from the gang life are surprisingly frequent clients. The exotically stunning Dominique Silver, who appeared in FX’s 'Pose,' talks about blowing a man who then violently slapped her when he discovered her penis. She is now adamant that sex with her will always be paid for.
Smith mostly shoots these women in their homes, Carter at one point dancing down a street. But she has also found men willing to talk, a pair of bangers in a low slung car surprising us with talk about acceptance and not getting caught up living a life of denial. Michael Carlos Jones, known as LØ, is an award winning Atlanta songwriter who’s worked with artists like Diddy and J-Lo who confesses to developing feelings for a trans woman. He describes her as a beauty, although denies having ‘experience’ with her as he sits fishing from the end of a pier. Smith humorously inserts a cutaway of a fish on a hook.
We’ll hear Liyah talk about wanting to get out of the sex work business and how much more she has to offer and we can believe she does. Carter sits on a bench telling us about coming out to her mother and, with keen psychological analysis, describes how the experience for her mom was akin to ‘losing another black man,’ having had a biological male child tell her that instead of taking care of her he chose to be as vulnerable. Smith weaves in high speed footage of flowers blooming, manipulated to look like animation, an apt metaphor. The film is dedicated to Koko Ka Doll, who was shot to death in Atlanta three months after “Kokomo City” premiered at Sundance, another victim of trans violence.
Robin's Review: B
Director-cinematographer-producer D. Smith takes cameras to New York City and Georgia to interview four transgender sex-workers to get their thoughts, fears and concerns of plying their trade in a world that has marginalized them and their lives in “Kokomo City.”
Smith shows two things with this debut documentary. There is a talent for finding and interviewing the four main subjects – Daniela Carter, Koko Da Doll, Liyah Mitchell and Dominique Silver – displaying their resolve of their life decisions. And it is a tough life with not knowing what will happen day to day but must be prepared for them all.
The ladies pull no punches in their anger at a society that denies trans-sex as a valid lifestyle. They are not “victims” in the conventional sense. They just want to live their lives in safety and pursuit of happiness. Remember, this is in a society that seems more intent on discrimination and understanding. But these tars sex-workers are all willing to put up with society’s crap.
The second thing is when Smith leaves the primary subjects for different POVs, it becomes more amateurish and loses the energy of the ladies. The main subjects are sure interesting and strong-willed, something they have to be to survive. But not all of them do, as we find out later.
Magnolia Pictures releases “Kokomo City” in select theaters on 7/28/23, going wider on 8/4/23. Click here for play dates.