Hard-hitting delivery styles, shimmering personalities and kaleidoscopic perspectives are the soul of D. Smith’s burst documentary City of Kokomo, which chronicles the experiences of four black trans sex workers living in New York and Atlanta. The main participants – Daniella Carter, Dominique Silver, Koko Da Doll and Liyah Mitchell – are an electric bunch, and the diversity of their testimonials propels this laudable project into refreshing and uninhibited territory.

From its first moments, City of Kokomo stands out from other documentaries — including its most obvious antecedent and point of comparison, Paris is burning. Instead of an explanatory voiceover or an establishing edit, we get Mitchell — sitting in her bedroom, her hair wrapped in a silk scarf — telling us about a near-fatal encounter with a client. The story begins on a low note and gains in levity as Mitchell delves into the details of each scene: the client entering her apartment, her split-second decision to steal her gun, the fight who followed down the hall.

City of Kokomo

The essential

Revealing and uninhibited.

Place: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Director: D. Smith

1 hour 13 mins

When Mitchell recounts the moment she realized she was no longer in danger, her hands, adorned with long acrylic fingernails, come to life. She prepares new details to a faster clip. Certain points, like the click of an empty barrel or the sound of breaking glass, are reinforced by sound effects by Roni Pillischer and funky musical supervision by Stacy Barthe. Re-enactments of the incident appear on the screen to hold our attention. You wonder: what could happen next? Well, Mitchell, as she says, went back to the client, reestablished contact, and got the job done.

Smith’s documentary vibrates with this kind of understated humor and editorial wit. The fears that fuel Mitchell’s reaction to the sight of his client’s gun are real: Trans women, especially those in the sex trade, are being abused and killed for no reason. We live in a time of unprecedented physical, psychological and legislative violence against trans people, especially trans youth. At this year’s best, dozens of bills to restrict or criminalize transgender health access have been introduced in 11 states. In a world that codes your existence as a threat, jokes and banter can be a balm for dealing with difficult experiences. Smith calibrates her film accordingly, tinkering with sound effects, an eclectic soundtrack, and low camera angles to reflect this duality of trans lives.

City of Kokomo testifies to the resilience of Smith and his participants. It’s proof of how they cultivate beauty and gentleness in an insensitive world. The filmmaker is a Grammy-winning producer who, after her transition, struggled to meet her basic needs. Colleagues stopped calling and job opportunities dried up. Smith began to run out of money and could not find accommodation. Even this documentary tested her resolve, as she was rejected by several directors whom she had asked for help with her film. With few options, she took matters into her own hands: she bought a camera and started recording.

Smith conducted the featured interviews in the homes or cars of her participants, private spaces that allow security and the freedom to embrace vulnerability. His camera also serves as a witness and an invitation to deeper narration. The collected testimonies create a multidimensional portrait of what it means to be a contemporary black trans woman and add to City of Kokomo‘s raw perspective. Mitchell, Carter, Silver and Koko Da Doll take us through their initiations into sex work, attempt to reconcile the demands of survival with the risks of the job, offer the most authentic versions of themselves and express their heterogeneous relationships with cis Blacks.

It is this last point that interests Smith’s documentary the most, penetrating into relatively uncharted territory with grace and courage. Mitchell, Carter, Silver and Koko Da Doll speak candidly about how their clients, who are usually black cis men, privately pursue them while publicly slandering them. They express a range of emotions – disappointment, sympathy, exasperation – towards the deep sexual and gender conservatism that runs through black communities. Smith’s edits emphasize the women’s differing opinions, evoking the cadences of a conversation between them, as if they were in the same room.

Apart from City of Kokomograssroots women, Smith also speaks to black men about dating trans women and their thoughts on the rigidity of gender norms. These conversations are insightful elements that sometimes struggle to find a comfortable home within the project. You might miss Mitchell, Carter, Silver, and Koko Da Doll when they’re offscreen, or hope for a stronger connection between the two subject groups.

Several lines of demarcation emerge throughout City of Kokomo as these women share their experiences of familial rejection, male sexual anxiety, and a world of retaliation threatened by the dissolution of the gender binary. The violence – both real and anticipated – is the most obvious thematic thread, but the competition for space and attention is the beauty. Smith rounds the edges of City of Kokomo basking in the physical bodies of these women. The camera wanders from the top of their head to their toes, wanders over their chests and backs, taking in the details of defiance.