Exclusive Interview: filmmaker D. Smith centres Black transgender sex workers in Kokomo City “their stories needed to be told”

Filmmaker D. Smith’s raw, provocative, and funny documentary, Kokomo City, that centres the stories of four captivating Black transgender women, in their own words, won both the NEXT Innovator Award and NEXT Audience Award when it world premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It went on to win the Audience Award in the Panorama Documentary section at the prestigious Berlinale. It is a stunning debut from Smith, which saw her direct, shoot, and edit the stylish black and white film, as well as appearing on its eclectic soundtrack. Read our ★★★★ review from Sundance.

D. Smith at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival world premiere of her documentary Kokomo City. Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images.

Before embarking on her film career, Smith made waves in the music industry as a two-time Grammy-nominated producer, singer, and songwriter. She also made history as the first trans woman to be cast on a primetime unscripted TV show, appearing on both the Atlanta and Hollywood versions of the hit reality series Love & Hip Hop.

Liyah Mitchell, Dominique Silver, D. Smith, Daniella Carter, and Koko Da Doll at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival world premiere of Kokomo City at Egyptian Theatre on January 21st, 2023 in Park City, Utah. Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images.

With Kokomo City opening at New York’s IFC Center on July 28th (before being released nationally in theaters by Magnolia Pictures on August 4th), D. Smith speaks exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about finding the film’s four lead subjects, the tragic death of Koko Da Doll to whom the film is dedicated, her vision for the documentary’s visual style, and why it was important to her to include men’s voices alongside the women.

“Their stories needed to be told” – filmmaker D. Smith centers Black trans voices in doc Kokomo City

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: taking you back to the beginning of the process, I’d love to know how you went about casting your four leads in Atlanta and New York, Daniella Carter, Koko Da Doll, Liyah Mitchell, and Dominique Silver.

D. Smith: “It was really inspiring to look for the girls. That process was so fun. It’s this journey that you’re creating to find and meet people that you don’t know. It’s like going on an adventure. It was very important for me that I find compelling people with that star quality, that star power that I think this film really needed. I didn’t want a pity party. I wanted girls with some pizzazz. I wanted girls that were going to keep you motivated and captivated, whether it’s in the way they speak, their physique or their background.”

Liyah Mitchell in Kokomo City. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

In terms of building intimacy and trust with the girls, I guess that went hand in hand with the way that you shot the film. I imagine that you didn’t have a huge crew?

“It would have felt a lot different had I had four or five people there. I’m not going to say that I couldn’t have got it done, but I think it would have taken the process a little longer. I came to the girls really transparent and explained to them what my vision was, what my intentions were and what that process would be. I told them, ‘You’re not going to have a glamsquad. There’s not going to be makeup’. They was like, ‘Bitch, what?!’ They were gagging. They gagged!”

“I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want them to have to rely on bells and whistles. I think them being stripped down in their natural transgenderism was so fucking badass. It was new for them and they felt empowered. It was like a Dove commercial; we were all naked and natural, and everyone was just exuding.”

Dominique Silver in Kokomo City. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

To what extent did you allow what the girls said to form the shape of the film, rather than having a really set idea of what it was going to be before you went in?

“It was a balance. If I heard a good point that they made or there was something that I really wanted to highlight with a particular girl then I would focus on that because they would say what they felt, but I would encourage them to go deeper. As an editor as well as the director, I was filming and editing simultaneously, which was a great process for me. I’m actually dreading moving forward and hiring an editor. I can’t even imagine it. I was blessed enough to have that gift of editing and doing the cinematography myself, so as I was filming them I already knew what I was getting at and what I needed. It worked for me and it worked for them too, because they were truly empowered by the opportunity to just speak their minds.”

Daniella Carter in Kokomo City. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

You did such a great job with the editing because it feels very energetic and pacey, but you don’t reduce what the girls say to soundbites.

“It was so difficult to to cut stuff. I’m going to have to do a director’s cut for sure because these girls are crazy. Don’t let them fool y’all, they are nuts! They’re so smart and witty and so funny. I wanted more of that in the film than anything else and I think there’s a really good balance. I’m happy with what we have.”

How about the visual style—the really striking black and white, fairly simple locations, and mainly natural light—what were some of your choices there?

“I had one light and I didn’t want more than that, between natural light and the light that I had, I was totally fine. Telling these girls’ stories, I wanted to do something different as a filmmaker. I definitely didn’t want to do something underwhelmingly cliché, I wanted to do something creative and fun and badass. I thought that having these girls tell their stories in such a raw way, in the visuals and their vocals and how they look, on top of black and white would be perfect. Black and white elevates anything, it takes things to another level, and I think their stories deserve that. Also, as an artist, there’s something that I saw in it.”

Liyah Mitchell in Kokomo City. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

It feels contemporary, very now, but also timeless in a way with the black and white. When it comes to the music, you contribute to the soundtrack yourself and there’s “Sissy Man Blues” on there. The music is a really important element that feels like it’s in dialogue with what’s being spoken on screen.

“Musically, it was such a great opportunity for me to get out what I’ve been holding in for years. I wanted the music to not take away from anything visually, but I wanted everything to be pushed, even if it was a really soft, demure song. It was such a fun process and it gave me the ability as a director and a producer to express myself.”

Koko Da Doll in Kokomo City. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Since the film premiered at Sundance, tragically we’ve lost Koko Da Doll and the film is dedicated in loving memory of her. Has her death made getting the film out there and seen by people all the more important to you?

“Well, it definitely—unfortunately—solidified the reason why their stories needed to be told. I would do anything for her not to have been taken away. But regardless of if I was in her life or not, it was inevitable, that was her destiny, that was going to happen. I’m grateful that I was introduced to her and that I was able to film her and capture her in such a beautiful, real, funny, humorous, sexy, powerful way. Had that not happened, she would just have been another murdered trans woman in Atlanta. Hopefully this film will allow people to be more compassionate and more understanding. To understand that these girls are fun, they’re great, they’re just trying to survive and we don’t want anything to happen to them. I hope that that’s what is projected.”

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

As well as hearing from the girls, we also hear from some men, though the women stay at the centre of the film. Why did you want to introduce their perspectives?

“Why not? It’s about them, so why have trans women talking about men and not include men? That is our world. We have male friends, not just lovers and clients. Trans women have guy friends that really love us and like us and respect us and support us, just like we have women friends. We have friends just like everyone else. There’s this narrative sometimes—I don’t know where it comes from—that it’s hard to be friends with trans women. So many trans women have friends from all walks of life and I wanted to show that. You can see the confidence and the comfortability of these men. I didn’t have to beg any of the men to do this, I didn’t have to convince them or to sell it to them. They couldn’t wait to do it. It’s crazy that it all worked out that way, but that’s definitely my world and it’s really fun to have people to see that in the theaters.”

Jimmy Scott at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, 2001. Photo credit: Leon Morris/Redferns.

What’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture, or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you?

“There was a jazz artist back in the day, Little Jimmy Scott, who was intersex. He was an incredible jazz singer. He could sing better than Billie Holiday, and I’m not kidding, I’m a music person so I’m not just saying that. His story was incredible to me. Most people don’t know who he is, but I’m inspired by his work and who he was.”

By James Kleinmann

Kokomo City opens at New York’s IFC Center on Friday, July 28th, from Magnolia Pictures and will be released in theaters nationally on Friday, August 4th.

When you purchase your own ticket, support the girls and contribute a ticket for someone else to see Kokomo City at IFC Center.

Kokomo City opens in UK cinemas from Dogwoof from Friday, August 4th.

“Their stories needed to be told” – filmmaker D. Smith centers Black trans voices in doc Kokomo City
Kokomo City – Official Trailer | Directed by D. Smith | In Theaters July 28
Kokomo City – Official Poster | Directed by D. Smith | In Theaters July 28

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