Sundance 2023 Film Review: Kokomo City ★★★★

When two-time Grammy nominated songwriter-producer D. Smith, who has appeared on both the Atlanta and Hollywood versions of the reality series Love & Hip Hop, had an idea for a film centering Black transgender sex workers and examining their place within the Black community, she approached several filmmaker friends with the concept. They all turned her down, so she decided to pick up a camera herself, resulting in the raw, intimate, and provocative feature documentary Kokomo City, which just received its world premiere in the NEXT section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, and has been acquired for distribution by Magnolia Pictures.

Liyah Mitchell in Kokomo City. Courtesy of Sundance.

When it comes to sex workers being shot for a documentary there’s an expectation that they’ll likely be framed in a way that evokes pity, shame, or judgment. Here, D. Smith—who serves as director, editor, cinematographer, and producer—empowers her four lead subjects, capturing them in an unfiltered and unguarded way, allowing them to speak their truths with a sparky and compelling frankness that’s unhindered by concerns about what anyone else might think about them, their opinions, and experiences. The film looks stunning, in luxuriant black and white, and boasts a vibrant, eclectic soundtrack, but its striking style never detracts from the subjects themselves or what they have to say, but rather enhances their words, echoing them in continually surprising ways visually and aurally, including rich and inventive sound design (Ric Schnupp and Roni Pillischer), and some gorgeous animated flourishes by Mary Hawkins. D. Smith’s lyrical handheld camera lingers on her subjects’ bodies at times, not with an outsider’s objectifying gaze, but more in a way that evokes how they might want to be seen themselves and that reenforces and illustrates their words.

Daniella Carter in Kokomo City. Courtesy of Sundance.

As the film opens we meet Liyah Mitchell, in Atlanta, who brings humour to a vivid recounting of “the scariest moment” she’s had doing sex work, when she noticed that one of her clients had a gun on him, complete with lively recreations. Although the film begins with this upbeat tone, albeit with a story about an armed client, Kokomo City doesn’t shy away from the challenges and dangers of sex work, with some confronting and distressing sequences, that aren’t sensationalized by D. Smith. In one of the most powerful moments of the film, Daniella Carter in Queens, sitting in her bath at home, plainly states, “This is survival work. This is risky shit. This is 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”. While Koko Da Doll in Atlanta reflects, “A lot of girls don’t make it out of it”, adding that she’s almost been killed herself while working and that “all her girlfriends are dead and gone”, either from HIV-related complications or killed by their clients, including one who was acquitted. In New York, Dominique Silver contemplates that “violence” from their clients “doesn’t happen before the orgasm, it happens after…because they feel like their masculinity is threatened”.

Dominique Silver in Kokomo City. Courtesy of Sundance.

Through these women’s witty, wise, and poignant takes, Kokomo City throws up questions of how Black LGBTQ+ folks are seen by other members of the Black community, often ostracized, rejected, or othered by members their own families; the dichotomy of Black cis men visiting sex workers, while their wives and girlfriends refuse to acknowledge trans women as women; ideas about how trans women should look; and the violence perpetrated against Black trans women by trans amorous cis men. In other hands this might have been a heavy and somber film, but D. Smith has created something that—propelled by the personalities of these four women—is entertaining and electrifying, without ever compromising what it has to say.

Koko Da Doll in Kokomo City. Courtesy of Sundance.

The word survive and survivor recur frequently, as the women share how they first got in to sex work, describe how they meet their clients, and the range of men who come to see them and their attitudes. D. Smith also gives us an insight into the opinions of some Black men considering how Black LGBTQ+ people are viewed and treated within the Black community, and we meet music producer Michael Carlos Jones aka “LØ” who is wrestling with his attraction to a trans woman, but the women’s stories remain at the heart of the film.

Rich-Paris and XoTommy in Kokomo City. Courtesy of Sundance.

Although we might meet them though their work, D. Smith doesn’t define these women by what they do, allowing us a window into their lives. She keeps the film tight, running at just 73 minutes. The editing has an energetic pace, with a captivating rhythm to it, but D. Smith allows her subjects the space to speak at length, and what they have to say is never reduced to soundbites. With its thought-provoking questions, stylish presentation, and charismatic subjects, Kokomo City has the potential to reach a broad audience, much as Paris Is Burning did on its theatrical release in 1991. D. Smith has created a continually stimulating and absorbing film, that humanizes and destigamtizes as it challenges and opens conversations; offering an expansive, sex-positive, and unvarnished view of sex work as work. It’s a refreshingly unorthodox, thrilling work that demands to be seen and heard, and richly rewards.

By James Kleinmann

Kokomo City received its world premiere in the NEXT section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It will screen again in-person on Tuesday, January 24th, Thursday, January 26th, and Friday, January 27th. Also available on demand online via the festival’s streaming platform. Head to the official Sundance website for more details and to purchase tickets.

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