Sundance 2023: Kokomo City, by David Bax
In topic-driven or issue-driven documentaries, there are two main paths a filmmaker can make (and then innumerable directions to branch off from there). On the one hand, there’s the bird’s eye view approach, attempting to offer an overview of a subject from an academic remove. More often than not, these films are boring. On the other hand, there’s the immersion approach, a ground-level entanglement with the subject that is often more cinematically and psychologically engaging. D. Smith‘s Kokomo City is an odd duck in that, consisting almost entirely of interviews, it would seem on paper to be a documentary of the former kind. Yet, with its complete lack of pre-judgment, it is, in spirit, far more interesting in immersion. The movie seeks to learn, not to teach.
Part of what is so engrossing and enveloping about Kokomo City is the cultural shorthand of the Black trans sex workers whose lives it seeks to know. Despite some of the film’s interview subjects living in New York City and some of them live in Atlanta, they have a shared way of looking at and interacting with the world. They also have a shared way of talking about it, which means you will very quickly lose count of how many times the words “bitch,” “cunt” and “pussy” are spoken.
But those are the words these women use while laughing, having fun! The most refreshing surprise of Kokomo City is that almost all of the interviews and interviewees have a positive, jovial vibe. Sex work is relatively common among trans women, largely because discrimination makes other work difficult to come by; and don’t forget that the women in this film are Black. These women’s lives are ripe for the exploitation of filmmakers, storytellers and journalists with a heavy, sober, condescending hand. But Smith lets us see them at their most beautiful, smiling, laughing and sharing their favorite memories. Even the high contrast black and white photography is more shimmery than stark.
One of the reason those bird’s eye view documentaries tend to be so facetious is that, from that distance, people look more alike than different. Smith is keen on showing us different types of trans women and even different types of transness and how they manifest in a sexual context. Put plainly, no one here is any less a woman than the others just because she’s into getting her dick sucked. Simultaneously, their male clients–some of whom are also interviewed–are no less heterosexual because they want to suck a woman’s dick.
But Smith is not pollyannaish or ignorant of the bigotry trans women face daily nor of its consequences. It’s a hard fact that the social taboos that exist in regards to trans people can be lucrative when it comes to certain clients. In a climactic monologue of sorts near the film’s end, one of the subjects directly addresses the “risky shit ” that comes along with what she does. Still, the film won’t let that define her. Kokomo City practically shouts at us that these women aren’t just statistics or a social cause. They are women.