Gender and sexuality have become a key debate of the contemporary culture wars, stoked by disingenuous journalists who know little about the realities of living such oppressed realities. Far too rarely are members of the LGBTQIA+ community given the platform themselves to speak freely about their lived experience away from the cynicism of modern PR campaigns, with this opportunity given to the lives of black transgender women in D. Smith’s rousing documentary Kokomo City.
Honest and untampered, Kokomo City portrays the lived experience of four Black transgender sex workers living in Atlanta, Georgia and New York City, Daniella Carter, Liyah Mitchell, Dominique Silver and the late Koko Da Doll. Allowing the filmmaker into their homes and into their private spaces, each of the participants openly reveal the unfiltered facts of their lives, making for a vibrant and refreshing piece of factual cinema.
When given the freedom to express themselves, each participant reveals a profound view of the life that has beaten, broken and sculpted them into the resilient individuals they are today. Indeed, as the film goes on, it becomes less of a simple fly-on-the-wall story and more of a crucial portrait of the life of four voiceless transgender women that radiates with vigorous strength and inspiring self-love.
Shot in slick monochrome, Smith’s documentary presents the lives of each participant in their rawest form, joining each woman in their most personal spaces where they’re given the platform for total self-expression. Often being shot from below, Smith gives potent vitality to each individual, allowing them to openly express themselves, showing humour, heart and honesty as they break down the dichotomy of the black community and their transgender identity.
To better represent each point of view, the women are joined by several other men, including boyfriends and music producers, who help give a broader understanding of the community and the relationship between sex, gender and the black experience. The conversations that follow paint a rather fascinating picture of how identity is compromised by the pressures of our upbringing and the values of our community, no matter how regressive those values may be.
After all, identity is too often constructed not only from within but also as a result of the self-conscious desire to fit in with your peers.
Accessing an urgent truth with cinematic grace, Smith’s film provides a platform for such conversations about sex and gender to thrive, sparked by wise figures who have witnessed the liberation and hardship of black transgender sex work first-hand. With so much life experience, these wise figures breathe life into each and every scene they inhabit, with their words gushing out with vital hast.
The documentary very much matches the energy of Carter, Mitchell, Silver and Da Doll, too, providing a lively and snappy pace that only helps to further invigorate the message of self-acceptance, self-love and resolve in the face of hardship. Much like Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, which too flowed with stylish tenacity, Kokomo City urges change with a passionate plea.