“A lot of the taboos that have been created around transgenderism don’t exist in this film”: D Smith on Kokomo City
“Why do you care who wants to fuck who?”
Much like the entirety of D Smith’s audacious feature debut documentary, Kokomo City, this statement from one of her Black transgender sex-worker subjects cuts through the noise around contemporary notions of transgenderism in a way that even the most verbose of discussions have been unable to. In just a few words, it pinpoints the ridiculousness of society’s obsession with policing what individuals want to do with their own bodies.
Stripping away the usual sheen applied to transgender people telling their stories through a visual medium, Smith has quite purposely allowed her four New York City and Atlanta-based interviewees the chance to appear their more natural, everyday selves, speaking candidly from their living rooms or bedrooms as though chatting to a friend, and given space to voice their opinions and share their experiences on their own terms. There’s glitz but it’s not in red carpet gowns and makeup, but in an effortless behind-the-scenes glamour as they recount tales – both harrowing and funny – of interaction with clients and the contradictory place they hold among the Black community.
In contrast to the unfiltered nature of the interviews she has elicited from her participants, the form of the film itself has a stylised look, shot in bold black-and-white and backed by a punchy, simmering soundtrack. The latter is a product of Smith’s background as a successful music producer, singer and songwriter (earning two Grammys in the process), a life that was tragically lost to her when she transitioned and the phone stopped ringing, leaving her without income or prospects. But if it’s not too coarse to use the hackneyed phrase “every cloud”, it’s that very rejection from the society and career she knew that seems to infuse Kokomo City with its unapologetic and visceral energy: a middle finger up to those who wouldn’t accept her as her true self, not least in that she filmed and edited the whole feature alone when no director would take up the project.
Right from the opening anecdote there’s a common thread and sentiment that seems to run throughout that, despite the danger and fear that surrounds the lives of Daniella Carter, Liyah Mitchell, Dominique Silver and Koko Da Doll (who was sadly shot and killed since the making of the film), there’s also fearlessness, humour and a refusal to be silenced – both their beauty and vulnerability captured.
The Upcoming had the chance to speak with Smith about her challenging journey from music producer to creating her feature documentary debut, her approach to discovering her subjects and allowing them space to tell their own story on camera, and her optimism for the future, despite the current challenges being faced by the LGBTQ+ community.
Kokomo City is released in select cinemas on 4th August 2023.
Watch the trailer for Kokomo City here: