Trans filmmaker D. Smith has done something incredible with her first film, the documentary “Kokomo City” (Magnolia). She has given voice to black, trans sex workers, a segment of the population that has something to say after remaining silent for too long. Focusing on four individuals – Liyah Mitchell, Dominique Silver, Daniella Carter, and the late Koko Da Doll (who was murdered in April 2023) – Smith offers us insight into both the trans and sex worker communities in equal measure.
Opening with Liyah’s story about her scariest sex work moment (involving a john with a glock), it functions as an illustration of the way some people must put their lives on the line just to feed themselves and pay the rent and utility bills. Each of the subjects tells their story, including how they came to be sex workers, as well as their personal trans journeys.
“Kokomo City,” whose title is a reference to blues singer Kokomo Arnold’s song “Sissy Man Blues,” is full of informative moments. Liyah, for example, talks about how men you’d never expect – some of whom she describes as “thuggish hoods” and “fine-ass dreadheads” – have no problem “getting down” with a trans woman. There are also plenty of dangers, including Dominique’s story about some men becoming violent “after orgasms,” embarrassed by the threat to their masculinity implied in having sex with someone who is trans.
There is also plenty of emotional pain. Koko cries when talking about the mistreatment she experienced at the hands of her family. But you can also see her frustration when she recalls the deaths of sex worker friends, including those murdered by clients.
However, Daniella is the real star here. The combination of her sense of humor and her profound and lived-experience wisdom is unforgettable. When she discusses how difficult it is for black women to accept when a black man transitions, seeing it as the loss of another man who won’t be there to protect them, but in some ways will be as vulnerable as they are, it feels like priceless insight. The truths she speaks about the loss of sense of self and value, tied to the lack of agency and resources, carries enormous weight.
Smith also includes cis male voices, but what they have to say pales in comparison to what the trans women have to say. Presented in vivid black and white, and incorporating visually artful elements, “Kokomo City” is an exceptional introduction to a filmmaker with unlimited potential.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of nine books including Refrain in Light (Souvenir Spoon Books, 2023). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in South Florida with his husband Rick, and their dog Coco.