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Sundance 2023 Recap: 'Kokomo City' Stuns at Film Festival, Lena Waithe Joins as Executive Producer

TV & Film | Review

Award-winning documentary "KOKOMO CITY" shattered barriers this year at the Sundance Film Festival as it portrayed the lives of four African American transgender sex workers between New York City and Atlanta. It’s no surprise that the film received the coveted Audience Award and the Adobe Innovator Award. Director D. Smith certainly shook up the NEXT section at the festival with her directorial debut and the authenticity that accompanies this film.

D. Smith is a Grammy award-winning producer, songwriter and artist who has worked with the likes of Andre 3000, Ne-Yo, Ciara and Janelle Monaé just to name a few. She brings her stellar knowledge of music and blends it seamlessly with a gritty, no-nonsense, exceptional visual that shines an unfiltered light on the cross-section of sex work and gender identity.

Parts of this particular narrative are also kin to D. Smith’s personal story as she mentions in her Sundance acceptance speech that once she started to transition, she “lost everything”.

“Having dear friends, close friends, and strangers in New York to let me sleep at their house, it helped me a lot. I’m a true testament that if you believe in someone and you can help them, you should do it,” she recalls.

In her own words, she describes the film as “a raw, edgy but rare look into the lives of black transgender women as they explore the dichotomy between the black community and themselves. A conversation that’s been avoided for many many years, has now taken center stage. So many of our black children grow up afraid and confused because of traditional values or admissible violence against them. Sometimes leading to death.”

In an Instagram post introducing KOKOMO CITY, D. Smith says that she: “reached out to 5 directors asking if they would help film this project, they all said no. I went out and bought a camera and a really nice lens and filmed it myself. No assistant, no lighting person, no editor. Just the vision of a truth.”

KOKOMO CITY gets its name from legendary blues singer Kokomo Arnold who wrote and performs “Sissy Man Blues”, a song that also made an appearance on the documentary’s eclectic soundtrack. The film was shot in black and white and begins with Liyah Mitchell laying in her bed as she retells an encounter with a potential client who brought a pistol to their meeting.

“This was one of the most scariest moments of my life doing sex work, because I didn’t know what to expect,” she tells us.

The documentary continues in a similar fashion, cutting back and forth between Liyah Mitchell, Koko Da Doll, Daniella Carter and Dominique Silver. KOKOMO CITY offers us an unabashedly truthful acumen into the day-to-day of trans sex workers, with scenes varying from the girls shaving their faces to dinner dates with friends. From candid conversations to unexpected admissions and declarations of attraction, the documentary pushes the envelope by having open conversations surrounding sex and dispelling taboos that have come hand-in-hand with hetero- and cis-normative societal ideologies.

The girls intimately recall their personal struggles throughout the film. Koko Da Doll tells us that she was homeless after she transitioned and began sex work as a means of providing shelter and food for her family, while moving from hotel to hotel as they were sleeping in her truck.

D. Smith accompanies the unpacking of cemented ideas of masculinity and stereotypical gender roles with contrasting imagery and a soundtrack that fits each scene perfectly. We have images of men lithely performing ballet juxtaposing images of the “most thuggish” men that we learn often times enjoy the bottom position.

Although the girls tell us that sex work can certainly be a lucrative business, they don’t hold back from unfurling the dark side of the industry as well. Quotes from the girls throughout the film echo similar sentiments of the violence that is often associated with some of the clients they engage with.

“Violence doesn’t come out before the orgasm, it comes after,” Dominique Silver offers in a retelling of a meeting with a client who then proceeded to attack her after realizing that she was transgender.

Daniella Carter affirms that “this is survival work” while Koko Da Doll grimly mentions that “a lot of girls don’t even make it”; additionally, Liyah Mitchell asserts that “either you get out of it or you end up dead.”

KOKOMO CITY focuses largely on the nuances surrounding African American existence and sexuality. The girls also do not hesitate to call out the varying levels of hypocrisy that exist within trans sex work and the black community.

“The black experience has always been limited to the way in which a white person told us we could live. And we threaten that as black trans people.”

Across the board, the girls agree that a lot of their clients are black men that enjoy facets of engaging with a trans woman but prefer to keep their sexual inclinations to themselves or even deny them completely.

One of the cast members urges people to “go hard ...if that’s what you like, that’s okay … Just don’t live the double life.” The girls also echo thoughts of how damaging it has been to them on an emotional level to consistently subscribe to intimate encounters with men that consistently deny the validity of their existence, despite the monetary payoff.

“But they don’t tell her how easy it is when she loses her sense of self...When the only thing you know of value to yourself is what a man put on you… And that’s not reality.”

KOKOMO CITY premiered on January 21, and after an all-night negotiation, Magnolia Pictures announced that they have acquired the worldwide rights to the film. KOKOMO CITY will be making its international debut at the Berlinale this month.

Additionally, Emmy-winning writer Lena Waithe came on board as executive producer, along with Rishi Rajani, who is the CEO of Waithe’s company Hillman Grad. Waithe has been known to support and amplify underrepresented voices in film and TV.

Hillman Grad Productions is the home of Shotime’s most streamed series “The Chi” as well as GLAAD nominated series “Twenties”, both written by Waithe. Grammy nominee Stacy Barthe who is an executive producer of KOKOMO CITY is said to be responsible for bringing Waithe and Hillman Grad onto the project.

Barthe is also responsible for one of the pivotal songs in the film. “Ain’t I A Woman” by Barthe plays as the film comes to a close, a powerful declaration as the visuals cut to each of the girls in their natural element. Ending with a beautifully raw, unsheathed image, the song reverberates through the bones of the audience.

KOKOMO CITY is a call to action as it brings the true nature of what it means to be a trans sex worker making a living in the United States. It is a gripping, unadulterated film that will not only put a smile on the faces of the viewers but will also provoke incisive thought. D. Smith has wonderfully blended sonic and cinematic in her documentary that is as honest as it is hilarious.


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