Kokomo City


Reviewed by: Jeremy Mathews

Kokomo City
"It’s thrilling to watch a filmmaker like Smith throw a wrench in the gears and deliver an unapologetic ode to outcasts that’s every bit as punk rock as its subjects." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

As important as it is to communicate the seriousness of a human rights movement, sometimes the actual humanity of it comes through best with humour. That’s where D Smith’s Kokomo City really shines. The documentary reminds us that we’re all living lives of absurdity and contradictions, and it doesn’t matter all that much if those absurdities are based in our gender identities, sexuality or something entirely different.

A breakout hit from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival’s NEXT selection — winning the Audience Award and Adobe Innovator prize — the documentary’s backstory feels like a throwback to old-school Sundance hits: Smith was a successful hip-hop producer for 15 years, but work dried up when she came out as a trans woman. Unable to find employment after being blackballed, she contemplated sex work. While she didn’t personally go down that route, she made Kokomo City to show why many trans women do.

Copy picture

In the process, she taught herself how to make a movie, which she said she had no idea about before going in. It turns out she has a gift for interviewing, capturing the frank, funny stories of trans sex workers, from their hardships to their financial and entrepreneurial triumphs. And she illustrates it all with black-and-white visuals, accentuated by eratic titles and explicit visuals. Smith sometimes goes overboard with stylistic flourishes — think MTV by way of the French New Wave and Nanook Of The North — but she moves so briskly and confidently that there’s no risk of getting bored.

The film focuses on four trans sex workers — Koko Da Doll, Daniella Carter, Liyah Mitchell, and Dominique Silver — who share in eye-opening detail both the experience of being trans and the experience of selling their bodies to clients who may also be humiliated to confess their sexual desires. It makes sense that sex workers would be willing to speak frankly about what they do, but Smith also pulls frank discussions from the Johns. They explain how they discovered their attraction to trans women, and what they get out of their business relationships.

The subjects speak freely, with experience and wit, but this documentary can’t purely be a fun showcase of their personalities, because they also live with the risk of violence. Sadly underlining this point, Da Doll was murdered in April, three months after the film’s Sundance breakthrough. Da Doll is probably the most frank and pointed observer in the film, able to cut through bullshit and explain the truth plainly and without hedging.

The age of streaming has in many ways been a blessing for documentarians in search of viewers and funding. But we all know that blessings often come with a curse. The form has become homogenised with true-crime yarns, nostalgia trips and issue docs that make viewers think they’ve learned more about a subject than they actually have. Streaming services know what formulas work, and they’re happy to ring those formulas dry of any sense of wonder. Even the techniques used to bring still photos to life feel stale and cliché.

So it’s thrilling to watch a filmmaker like Smith throw a wrench in the gears and deliver an unapologetic ode to outcasts that’s every bit as punk rock as its subjects. Documentaries can cover any subject, and approach it from all sorts of directions. Even better, they can still be enlightening, challenging and memorable — not to mention funny as hell.

Reviewed on: 03 Aug 2023
Share this with others on...
Kokomo City packshot
Four Black transgender sex workers explore the dichotomy between the Black community and themselves, while confronting issues long avoided.
Amazon link

Director: D Smith

Year: 2023

Runtime: 73 minutes

Country: US

Search database: