THE STORY – Four Black transgender sex workers tell their life stories in intimate and candid interviews.
THE CAST – Daniella Carter, Koko Da Doll & Liyah Mitchell
THE TEAM – D. Smith (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 73 Minutes
In a time when certain voices are in peril of being completely wiped out from the conversation, the inclusion of varied perspectives is incredibly vital. Sometimes, these viewpoints don’t have to carry a particular weight of social commentary, but the very nature of their existence is essential to the culture. The world tries its best to limit their speech and antagonize their identity, which is why the spotlight becomes even more important to emphasize the call for basic humanity. For many, those at the center of “Kokomo City” may appear to be operating on the fringes of an acceptable environment, but this film shows why such people deserve to have their stories heard too. It’s an effective piece with noble intentions, even if it sometimes struggles to coalesce its thesis into an engaging whole.
The subject at hand is focused on a group of Black trans sex workers living in New York City and Georgia. Daniella Carter is from Queens, and Dominique Silver resides in Manhattan. Koko Da Doll lives in Atlanta, and in Decatur, a town just outside of the big city, is Liyah Mitchell. All four women offer up stories detailing their experiences in this line of work, from dangerous close calls with clients to the complicated sexual dynamics that are constantly at play. Some of them speak with a tenacious sternness that critiques all who try to disparage these women, no matter their background. Others expose a philosophy that attempts to be more tactile by observing the complex rules society has created. However, all speak from a truth that has survived pain and trauma, continuously voicing the ever-present peril that surrounds their lives and the joyful pride taken in their identity.
All four of these personalities are captivating in the ways in which their situations are presented. There’s a nice balance struck between the harrowing and comedic, well-conveyed in the opening moments of Liyah’s retelling of one job in which the tension escalated dramatically. The tale is described with an immediate realization of the threat at hand, yet a certain gallows humor encompasses the story. This runs throughout most of the testimonials, but never once lost is the fortified mental state needed for survival. Dominique discusses the nuanced conversations that must be had when exposing clients’ bad behavior because they are still necessary financial institutions of support. Koko is grappled by her pursuit of self-fulfillment in a world that continually tries to break her down. Daniella provides some of the most powerful analyses, indulging in multiple diatribes about the hypocrisy within the Black community and the lack of solidarity between all kinds of women. She delivers fiery sermons that speak to a rousing and fundamental principle worthy of exposure.
Director D. Smith assembles these explorations in a manner that looks for a potent intimacy, with the gritty black and white cinematography evoking small-scale documentaries of the past. The textured look calls for a grounded realism but also a fantastical aesthetic, evoking real anxieties as well as aspirational dreams. However, while the scenery and themes are compelling, Smith has difficulty sustaining the momentum. The analysis eventually becomes meandering and scattered and, at a certain point, leaves the material feeling padded to stretch itself to an already short running time. There is also only a surface-level analysis of the men who are featured here, occasionally giving their own opinions about the harmful relationships that fester. Their insight is intriguing but is never really prodded any deeper. There is even an opportunity to do so, with one man unabashedly pining for a trans woman and another who opens a nightclub that advertises trans performers. These two men represent a fascinating side that runs counter to stereotypes, but their impact is quite limited.
One cannot help but commend the efforts of “Kokomo City” and what it is attempting to bring to the forefront. Trans representation deserves a showcase during these inhospitable times, and elevating those who deal in professions many might find unsavory only shows the lengths many go to just to live another day. This is a difficult task, as an emotional monologue from Koko about self-fulfillment becomes a tragic heartbreak in the wake of her murder only months after the film’s completion. It’s a bitter reminder of why these examinations are necessary. While one wishes the overall narrative could provide an even richer observation, what is elevated is captivating all the same. These stories are necessary and should be given the platform to reveal both the heartache and beauty of these lives.