Kokomo City review: A bold and important documentary

Dominique Silver in Kokomo City.
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D. Smith’s Kokomo City, a documentary about black trans sex workers, is a bold film with candid and charismatic subjects.

D. Smith took on many jobs in the making of Kokomo City, serving as director, producer and editor, and she covers a lot of ground in this stylish but hard-hitting documentary, too. Her four main subjects, Daniella, Koko, Liyah and Dominique, are a charismatic group of women who fuel this film with their energy and incredibly candid stories of their lives and experiences as black, trans sex workers in New York and Georgia. They have much to share about how society, their clients, other women and other black people view and treat them.

Those tales are told with a great amount of passion, and are enhanced by the movie’s sound design and inventively-placed cut-away reenactments that augment the stories. The editing here is sharp and snappy, giving Kokomo City a sense of pace – even during its most serious scenes. It’s one of those that captures your attention right at the film’s opening, where Liyah recalls a client bringing a gun to an appointment and her fearing for her life.

Shot in black and white and mostly in the women’s homes, this film has a very intimate feel to it. The subjects invite us into their personal spaces, tell a variety of deeply personal stories and discuss their views on gender, sexuality and sex work in a way that can feel at times very casual for the complexity of the subject matter.

While there are some really varied and interesting thoughts presented by these women, their tales can often feel a bit fragmented. Kokomo City is so ambitious in the range of subjects it wants to cover with these fascinating women that it often jumps between conversations, picking up a tangentially related, but different anecdote or musing in each scene. This sometimes feels, therefore, as if there’s not a clear narrative line or train of thought that flows through the movie. The individual accounts are powerful, but the breadth of topics covered combined with the pacy editing leads them to feel slightly disconnected from each other despite the obvious associations they share.

There are also other people besides the lead four that are spoken to, including various men who give their thoughts on the prospect of being with trans women. Their inclusion within the flow of the film has its pros and cons; it markedly takes focus away from the really important people in the film, while also providing a context for the types of clients that the leads deal with. Alongside this, it outlines why men they seek out trans sex workers, and illuminates the transphobic paradox of finding them simultaneously desirable and contemptible.

As a sad coda to all of this, Koko Da Doll, one of Kokomo City’s leads, was found dead from a gunshot wound earlier this year. That tragic event draws further attention to why films like this, that centre the stories of the most marginalised people in society, are so important. D. Smith has done good work here.

Kokomo City is in cinemas on 4th August.

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