Kokomo City is not a real place. It’s more like a state of mind, invented by director D. Smith, who is Black and trans, to describe the space that her sisters occupy in the world. Theirs is an identity that is barely understood by the public and frequently misrepresented by the media, but is here defined by a handful of tell-it-like-it-is trans sex workers who offer snappy, whip-smart insights into their lives, dreams and the down-low dudes who adore them. In Smith’s short, salty micro-budget doc, the t-girls spill the tea, totally reframing the conversation.
A singer-songwriter who produced for the likes of Lil Wayne and Katy Perry, only to see her livelihood dry up when she transitioned, Smith still thinks in terms of music. During the course of shooting this film, the self-taught director stumbled across a nearly 90-year-old recording called “Sissy Man Blues” from all-but-forgotten Black crooner Kokomo Arnold. His name inspired her title, “Kokomo City,” which — along with the film’s more quotable lines — feels poised to enter the lexicon the way so much of “Paris Is Burning” has done.
“Lord if you can’t send me no woman, please send me some sissy man,” Kokomo can be heard singing on the soundtrack — a work in progress that, as of the film’s lively Sundance premiere, Smith is actively working to upgrade before Magnolia releases it. Even in its early form, this doc rocks, using music to set the tempo for its snappy mix of head-turning talking heads, tongue-in-cheek reenactments and outside-the-box supporting visuals (time-lapse flowers, a topless ballet dancer, a butch pro baller).
Tired of the kid-gloves approach, Smith convinced four trans sex workers to go on camera — unapologetic Atlanta natives Koko Da Doll and Liyah Mitchell, plus New Yorkers Daniella Carter and Dominique Silver — and open up about the stuff that more mainstream trans-empowerment movies (such as “Disclosure”) tell us should be off-limits, like their bodies and what they do in the bedroom. The questions may not be pre-approved by GLAAD, but they’re coming from a trans woman actively working against the usual feel-good talking points; the responses she gets are frank, funny and frequently shocking.
Smith’s subjects use the n-word. They use the t-word. They’re not afraid to offend, but they’re also incredibly articulate in their irreverent assessment of how the world works, dishing on everything from image culture to what Daniella sees as the hypocrisy of her fellow Black people — one of the film’s key themes: “We all scream the narrative that we oppressed … but we’re the first motherfuckers to turn our nose up to the next person who want to stand out and be different.”
In its no-holds-barred approach, “Kokomo City” aims to unpack why entrenched ideas of masculinity and gender roles make trans-ness so threatening to the Black community in particular. To hear them tell it, trans women have what Black men can’t get at home, but could, if they got past the shame of their sexuality. “They wanna see a pretty-ass girl with a big dick,” says Koko, bluntly explaining the concept of “trade”: tough, rugged dudes who sneak behind their wives’ or girlfriends’ backs, looking to bottom.
Others, including a hip-hop songwriter named LØ, are attracted to the ultra-feminine qualities of trans women but uncomfortable with touching “those parts.” LØ is but one of several Black men included here, whose participation is vital, since “Kokomo City” seems committed to helping society push past the stigma around dating nontraditional partners. At one point, Dominique explodes “the whole stereotype that you’re gay if you sleep with a trans woman just because we have male genitals, but a lot of us are way more woman than a lot of cis women.”
Shooting the film herself, Smith encourages her subjects to look their best: strutting, sprawled out on sofas or hotel beds. The movie ends with a montage that underscores their self-confidence and emphasizes their beauty, before pulling a “Boogie Nights”-like reveal. That’s a controversial choice in the trans community, since it puts the emphasis on certain body parts. But “Kokomo City” was never meant to be polite — or politically correct, for that matter. These women have nothing to hide. If anyone comes out from watching “Kokomo City,” it’ll be the guys who were afraid to admit their desire in public.