“Kokomo City” – A film by D. Smith

Review by 

Nicole V. Gagné


Having wowed audiences at film festivals internationally, Kokomo City is scheduled for release in the States by Magnolia Pictures on July 28. D. Smith’s documentary – produced, directed, filmed, and edited by this acclaimed singer/songwriter, her first feature – is an unforgettable experience.

Smith’s approach is simple: Let four Black transgender sex workers speak for themselves. These women have stories to tell that turn a bright light on hidden issues of sex, gender, race, and class in the U.S., and to ignore what they have to say is to shut yourself off in ignorance and delusion. Speaking with Daniella Carter and Dominique Silver in New York and with Liyah Mitchell and Koko Da Doll in Georgia, Smith lets these eloquent, smart, and experienced women speak the truth, and everyone should hear their voices.



Liyah kicks things off by ripping away the macho mask, informing the audience, “I’ve had the most thuggish [clients …] you would never think that they would do anything with a trans woman.” And a lot of these guys show enthusiasm for her body right down to her male genitalia – a fact Koko reinforces, insisting, “I’m a full top […] the clients like big dicks […] And they go right back to their girlfriends like nothing ever happened.” But even the men who enjoy these women strictly for their female qualities are just as uptight when it comes to admitting their attraction. Dominique sums up the hypocrisy and confusion when she points out, “This is the problem with this world, everybody is so worried about who’s fucking who, when at the end of the day they want to fuck each other!” She also sees the sadness in these men who can’t acknowledge the reality of their own lives: “They’re suffering because they’re not living in their true.” “We’re meeting guy after guy who’s in denial after denial,” Daniella elaborates, “they’re there to exploit us, to fetishize us […] We’re normalizing letting grown men take advantage of our bodies.”

All four of Smith’s stars offer indelible moments of insight and honesty. But Daniella Carter is truly riveting when she tells us, “The Black experience has always been limited to the way in which a white person told us we could live, OK? And we threaten that as Black trans people.” Daniella also recognizes the sense of abandonment her transition to female has caused in her own mother, who expected “that Black child to do everything her Black lover couldn’t do,” only to have her child tell her, “I’m not here to protect you, I’m here to be in some ways just as vulnerable as you.”

Although Smith’s film also includes important commentaries from several Black men who are open and unapologetic about their attraction to trans women, what gives this documentary its profound impact is the opportunity it offers for these women to talk to the world. And far from being in the grip of fantasy or illusion, they are the ones with the surest hold on the realities of their lives. ”Just being something you were born to be, how can people look down on you?” Koko asks. “I can’t believe how the world makes you think that you’ve done something wrong.” That desire to punish people for being what they were born to be is alluded to several times in Smith’s film. “This is survival work, this is risky shit,” Daniella reminds us, with Koko saying that she has been almost killed two or three times. And at the end, when the film’s final card states, “in loving memory of Koko Da Doll,” you start to understand how much is really at stake for these women – and just how much our society is losing by marginalizing them and fighting the contribution they can make.

Thanks to D. Smith and Kokomo City, it’s now much harder for such exclusions to be perpetuated. And in this time when trans people are being demonized and attacked by politicians and other bigots across the country, this film is all the more precious and needed. Don’t miss it!

Laura Albert

Laura Albert has won international acclaim for her fiction. Writing as JT LeRoy, she is the author of the best-selling novels Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, and the novella Harold's End. Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, reissued by HarperCollins, have also been released as audiobooks by Blackstone Publishing. Laura Albert is the subject of Jeff Feuerzeig's feature documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story and Lynn Hershman Leeson's film The Ballad of JT LeRoy. She has written for The New York Times, The Forward, The London Times, Spin, Man About Town, Vogue, Film Comment, Interview, L'Équipe Sport&Style, Filmmaker, I-D, and others – more recently, the cover article for Man About Town and her reflections on fashion for VESTOJ. A writer for the HBO series "Deadwood," she also wrote the original script for Gus Van Sant's Elephant and was the film's Associate Producer. She has written the short films Radiance for Drew Lightfoot and ContentMode, and Dreams of Levitation and Warfare of Pageantry for Sharif Hamza and Nowness. For Tiempo de Literatura 2020's “The Narrative Universe of Laura Albert,” she engaged in a wide-ranging ZOOM conversation with Fernanda Melchor, International Booker Prize Shortlist author for her acclaimed novel Hurricane Season. Twitter: @lauraalbert Instagram: @laura_albert