Jul 05, 2023

Kokomo City review

D Smith’s effortless documentary, eloquently explained by its glamorous subjects, covers the whole spectrum of experience

Shot in a curiously warm monochrome that accentuates the statuesque glamour of its interviewees, the documentary builds a collective portrait of several Black trans women who have all at one point been sex workers. Directed, shot and edited by D Smith, a transgender woman who used to be a producer in the music industry, and made on a G-string budget, the film covers a lot of ground in a relaxed, effortless way. It kicks off with a horrifying and then surprisingly funny true story told by Liyah Mitchell about how she encountered a client with a gun on him – and attacked him, fearing she was about to be shot. Long story short, the gun was only for his self-protection and they ended up having sex anyway.

But not all the anecdotes are so amusing and blithe. There is plenty of discussion of the dark side of sex work, from the way it can numb workers emotionally to tales of friends who contracted HIV and later died of Aids, or were killed by violent clients. Truly, this covers the whole spectrum of experience, all of it eloquently explained by the subjects, an assortment of women who tell their truths about clients who can’t be honest with themselves, their complicated relationships with friends, family and cis women, the legacy of slave culture, and their favourite portable electric shavers.

Smith’s music background comes through in the contrapuntal way she edits together footage of the women speaking straight to camera and then lays the soundtrack down over pictures of them dancing, posing and flirting with the camera, or making out with their steady boyfriends. The title, according to an interview on NPR, comes from a song by an artist from the 1930s named Kokomo Arnold whose tune, Sissy Man Blues, asks the Lord to bring the horny speaker a “sissy man” if he can’t have a woman. It’s a delightful find, and hints at the deep roots of bisexuality and trans identity in Black culture. At a sprightly 78 minutes, this is also one of those rare films you would be happy to watch if it were longer, especially in light of the fact that one of the subjects, Koko Da Doll – seen here discussing the joy of performing in the supposedly safe space of a trans-only strip bar – was fatally shot last April.

Kokomo City is released on 4 August in UK and Irish cinemas.