'Kokomo City' — Black trans sex workers' stories

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday July 25, 2023
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A scene from 'Kokomo City' (photo: Magnolia Pictures)
A scene from 'Kokomo City' (photo: Magnolia Pictures)

With transgender people frequently in the news, mostly because of restrictive laws or outright bans effectively trying to silence their voices, it's imperative their stories be heard. That's precisely what director/writer D. Smith accomplishes in her luminous and refreshing documentary "Kokomo City."

The film centers on the lives of four sassy uninhibited Black transgender sex workers (Liyah Mitchell, Dominique Silver, Koko Da Doll, and Daniella Carter) in New York and Atlanta. Most transgender women are not sex workers, but Smith ingeniously uses that perspective to arrive at certain truths universal to the transgender journey.

Smith doesn't invoke any shame or judgment on these women, but empowers them to speak their unvarnished truth with brutal honesty and openness, even if it defies the dictates of political correctness, which is one reason that despite dealing at times with grim subjects, "Kokomo City" is unexpectedly fun and wildly entertaining. These four dynamic women can be seen and heard as themselves, multi-dimensional but not defined only by what they do as sex workers.

Scary moments
The film's sensational opening sets its funky tone with Liyah relating her "scariest moment" about trying to steal a client's gun, then struggling with him in the hallway, managing to escape, but the kicker is that the next day she reinitiates contact with him, both deciding it was all a misunderstanding, then resuming their paid tryst. This incident relays the dangers of sex work but also its titillating unpredictability, a true living-by-the seat-of-your-pants extravaganza alternating between terror and tongue-in-cheek.

Later Daniella gives a sharp reality check, "I'm supposed to tell people this shit is cool? This shit is safe? This is survival work. This is risky shit... putting your life in the hands of a man that don't know shit about you and the only thing he's there for is escaping his own reality... and his reality is ten times better than the one he's giving you."

This violence is in retaliation against the dissolution of the gender binary.

Survival is key here with Koko matter-of-factly commenting, "A lot of girls don't make it out," then revealing that she herself has almost been killed several times, that "all her girlfriends are dead and gone," either killed by their clients or HIV casualties. After often having been rejected by their families, they also fear being arrested, "been to jail three times, and the next time it's a felony."

Ambitious glamour
Yet these women seem intent on having a good time and relish making themselves look as glamorous as possible. Often wives and girlfriends don't acknowledge trans women as women, prompting Daniella to scream, "My money, my swipe has the same motherfucking value as your sacrifice. It's just two different sacrifices. I use my body and you use your brain. We were just two ambitious women trying to achieve a goal."

Or as Dominique notes, "We're always existing around systems who tell us who we should be for someone else."

There are conversations about how they got into sex work, meet clients, and the types of men they confront with varying attitudes. As Daniella says, "We've broken down, but have a great way of making ourselves stand out."

The other facet of the film is interviews with straight men who appreciate trans women, but also feel threatened by that desire.

"Some guys ignore the dick and don't want anything to do with it, while other rugged dudes wanna see a pretty-ass girl with a big dick," sneaking behind their wives or girlfriends to do so. Dominique observes, "violence doesn't happen before the orgasm, but after...because they feel like their masculinity is threatened."

Smith was a successful music producer working with talent like Katy Perry and Lil' Wayne, even nominated twice for Grammys, but when she transitioned, nobody wanted to hire her. It took her three years to finish the film (with out lesbian writer/actor Lena Waithe as executive producer), crashing on different friends' couches, with no assistant, no editor, no lighting person, "just the vision of a truth."

She's doing everything in this movie on her own (filming, editing, and scoring the doc with writing some original songs creating a captivating rhythm that propels the narrative) but undoubtedly her experience won the women's trust, as if they were speaking to a friend, holding nothing back, in terms of explicit language and their uncompromising opinions.

The women condemn the hypocrisy of their Black community vis-à-vis transphobia, particularly Black men dating trans women but publicly castigating them. Daniella decries this Black sexual and gender conservatism of rigid norms: "We all scream the narrative that we're oppressed...but we're the first mother**kers to turn out nose up to the next person who want to stand out and be different."

Dominique angrily explodes, "The whole stereotype that you're gay if you sleep with a trans woman just because we have male genitals, but a lot of us are way more woman than a lot of cis women."

A scene from 'Kokomo City'
(photo: Magnolia Pictures)  

Sissy stigma
She frankly summarizes the film's desire to explode the stigma surrounding dating "nontraditional" partners: "Why do you care where somebody else is putting their dick? The problem with this world is that everybody is so worried about who's fucking who, when at the end of the day, they want to fuck each other. That's the whole tea."

"Kokomo City" is shot in luscious Black and white photography with its stark contrast between light and dark. The title comes from 1930s Black singer, Kokomo Arnold's recording used in the film, "Sissy Man Blues," with its potent line, " I woke up this morning with my pork grinding business in my hand/ Lord if you can't send me no woman, please send me some sissy man."

Smith also uses cheesy reenactments (really not necessary) with animated and time-lapse visuals plus bubbly graphics all to create a snappy tempo and vibe juxtaposing sometimes appalling confessions.

"Kokomo City" is gripping yet hilarious, frightening with certain comments flat-out jaw-dropping with their shocking, no sugar-coating candor. The vicissitudes of sex work has transformed these defiant women into street philosophers proclaiming hard-earned wisdom.

But sadly no raucous line or trenchant observation could capture the absolute necessity and urgency of this electrifying documentary to deplore the religious/political/cultural attacks against the trans community, than the news that Koko Da Doll was shot and killed in Atlanta this past April.

As Smith so aptly summarizes the dream of her mind-expanding film about vulnerable trans people in the press notes, "We're all in the same boat. We're all looking for a decent man, a woman, or whatever you're into—we just want love, so we want the trans community to be recognized as part of the human community."

'Kokomo City' opens August 4 at the Roxie Theater, 3125 16th St. www.roxie.com

Also August 7 & 8 at the 4 Star Theater, 2200 Clement St. www.4-star-movies.com


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