These Beautiful Ladies Have A Lot To Say

Feb 2, 2023

PARK CITY – One of the best accomplishments a documentary can pull off is making its audience uncomfortable. Maybe even squirm in their seats a little. And the trans women at the center of D. Smith’s directorial debut, “Kokomo City,” have no problem in that department. Yes, even for the most seemingly “liberal” and “progressive” of audiences. In fact, they’ve had just about enough of everyone taking advantage of their bodies and questioning their agency. And they are relishing the spotlight Smith is giving them.
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Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend, “Kokomo City” refers to Kokomo Arnold, a legendary blues musician who wrote the seminal song, “Sissy Man Blues.” While interviewing her four primary subjects, Smith finds them returning to the topic of the “tough” straight-identifying men who engage in their services (mostly without their girlfriend or wife’s knowledge) or, in what may surprise many, are comfortable enough in their own skin to date them. Effectively, the same subject of Arnold’s almost 100-year-old song when he sings, “Lord, if you can’t send me no woman, please send me some sissy man.”
The ladies of this brisk 111-minute feature are specifically based in Atlanta and New York City. And all of them have been sex workers or escorts at one time, which appears to be the current profession of one lady in particular. And in an age where trans women are under attack from all sides, we’d be remiss not to be concerned they could be arrested or prosecuted after this film is released.
But they aren’t just interested in breaking barriers with their bodies. They are using the spotlight to talk about subjects many men (of all races) and black women, especially, don’t want to talk about. Daniella Carter, a noted activist, has some of the most incisive comments. Speaking about trans women in the larger Black community she notes, “I’m dealing with the broken black women because the liberated black women don’t have time for the broken black women.” And adds later on, “Your man will see us both as equals, but you can’t.” 
And don’t try to discredit their sex work either. They know their value. Carter will tell you “My money, that my swipe has the same mother**king value as your sacrifice. It’s just two different sacrifices. I use my body and you use your brain. We were just two ambitious women trying to achieve a goal.”  And as Dominque Silver notes, “Everyone is so worried about who is f**king who when at the end of the day they all want to f**k each other. That’s the whole tea.”
The subjects of “Kokomo City” are quote machines, but their strength is that they make you listen to what they are actually saying and digest their opinions. Oh, no, they are not just here to entertain you. Points will be made.
Incredibly, Smith shot, directed, and edited “Kokomo” almost completely on her own, demonstrating an often-breathtaking cinematic eye for a first-time filmmaker. She’s especially accomplished in composing striking black-and-white images that keep you captivated in what is almost entirely a talking head documentary. At one moment, she interviews her subject sitting in a bathtub composing the shot with the artistic elegance of an acclaimed Herb Ritts photograph.
Smith also attempts to give different perspectives by talking to straight-identifying men who appreciate trans women with mixed results. She spends significant time speaking with one in particular, “L0” (Michael Carlos Jones), a longtime music producer and songwriter who is open to being with trans women but hadn’t at the time of filming. His story doesn’t seem to fit with the overall narrative thrust of the documentary and you often wonder why Smith continues to return to him.
The film’s objective, however, is to let these particular trans women speak for themselves without a politically correct lens deeming them as culturally appropriate (whatever that would be) for the mainstream media. There is a similar narrative thread going through another trans-centered documentary at the festival, Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker’s “The Stroll,” but that film takes it in a much more familiar direction. In this case, Smith and her subject’s objective are to let you know the world has arrived in “Kokomo City” whether they like it or not. And, frankly, we wouldn’t have minded hearing even more from them. [B-]
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