After a rapturous reception at Sundance Film Festival in January 2023, D. Smith’s directorial debut Kokomo City has only grown in relevance. One of the subjects of the documentary, Koko Da Doll, was fatally shot in April.
D. Smith, a former music producer who came out as trans in 2014 and was pretty much shunned by the music industry after her transition, has rediscovered herself as a filmmaker and her debut is a stunning piece of documentary filmmaking.
Kokomo City follows four Black trans women, Koko Da Doll, Daniella Carter, Liyah Mitchell and Dominique Silver, who earn their living through sex work. Smith films them at their homes; the film is intimate and revealing as these women tell their stories in their pyjamas, without makeup.
The film takes its title from a Kokomo Arnold song, ‘Sissy Man Blues’. “Lord if you can’t send me no woman/ please send me some sissy man”, Arnold croons on the song. Shot in crisp, striking black and white, Kokomo City is a handsome film. The black-and-white imagery fits Smith’s unpretentious approach to the subject matter, and the women in the centre of the film provide more than enough colour anyway.
Amazingly, Smith has also managed to find a few men who specifically go to trans sex workers for their services. While these interviews are far more brief, they add a fascinating layer to Smith’s film. One of the women casually mentions that in order to succeed as a trans sex worker, you need a big… appendage.
Kokomo City will certainly ruffle some feathers. Smith boldly incorporates humoristic re-enactments of situations, most of them sexual, and the film is clearly designed to be provocative. “You have to shock people,” Smith told us in our exclusive interview with her.
To balance that shock factor, Kokomo City is also delightfully playful. Smith clearly has the ability to make her subjects relax, and she’s certainly found some characters to feature in the film. The four women at the centre of the doc were found on Instagram, and Smith, keen to avoid what she calls a “red carpet” approach, explores and probes these women gently.
Many LGBTQ+ films are often criticised for their continued focus on the more traumatic aspects of life as a part of a minority. Kokomo City never wallows in the dangers these women have encountered, but Smith doesn’t shy away from them either. In the opening sequence of the film, Liyah recounts a time when she spotted a gun on the side table during a tryst with a client.
The opening, like the rest of the film, is a masterful balancing act. The first five minutes will shock you, make you laugh and feel scared and the rest of the film will equally test your emotional limits. It’s a little overwhelming if we’re being honest; Kokomo City is almost exhausting in its brilliance, certainly, a problem any debut filmmaker would like to have.
At only 78 minutes, Smith leaves us wanting more. Kokomo City can be a little scattershot at times, but this is urgent, vital filmmaking and Smith announces herself as a major new talent.
Kokomo City – In UK & Irish cinemas 4th August.