Kokomo City: An Unfiltered Love Letter to Black Trans Women
Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival Documentary Centerpiece Kokomo City is a testament to the power of championing and centering Black trans women and their stories.
By Kayla Thompson
July 15, 2023
A Black trans woman smokes on a bed, a big teddy bear is resting against the bed in front of her. Courtesy of the filmmaking team.
Grammy-nominated producer, singer, and songwriter D. Smith’s directorial debut Kokomo City is an unflinching, electrifying glimpse into the lives of four Black trans sex workers: Liyah Mitchell, Koko Da Doll, Daniella Carter, and Dominique Silver. Platforming and carving out space for the voices and stories of these women, Smith’s documentary drives the kind of genuinely authentic storytelling that Hollywood has yet to see.
Moving from the bustle of Manhattan and Queens, to city streets in Atlanta, to the backyard of Liyah’s residence in Decatur, Georgia, Kokomo City disrupts expectations in the best and most compelling way. The documentary gives Liyah, Koko, Daniella, and Dominique the autonomy and license to share their experiences, granting each of them the agency to reframe and moderate the narratives and discourse that so often center Black trans women and sex workers without ever inviting them to the discussion.
A series of increasingly intimate, vulnerable, and raw conversations open the door for viewers to enter, with empathy, into the interior of each woman’s life and perspective.
In apartments, from bathtubs, while walking the familiar paths of their respective cities, and while engaging in dialogue with friends, the women of Kokomo City share hard truths and face the realities of performative allyship, racism, the violence that sex workers and trans women often experience, and the sometimes fraught relationship between the Black community and Black LGBTQ+ people (particularly Black trans women).
Where other documentaries and documentarians would shy away and censor, Smith holds fast to what is unapologetic and real, creating space for Liyah, Koko, Daniella, and Dominique to speak candidly while showcasing the range of realities and stories that make up the Black LGBTQ+ experience.
Sitting by the river and bolstered by the sounds of New York City traffic, Daniella reflects deeply on the relationship between Black cis women and Black trans women, and touches specifically on the tension that can exist between cis mothers and their trans daughters.
A Black trans woman in a shower cap sits in a bathtub. Courtsey of the filmmaking team.
Hauntingly, Carter reflects shortly after that some mothers would rather see their children conform to expectations of normativity and systems that would crush them before they would see their children escape that system, coming into a more manifold and true version of themselves.
Still, while mediating reflections rife with pain and hardship, Smith takes care to capture, uplift, and emphasize the abundance of joy that Mitchell, Koko, Carter, and Silver experience as they move through the world.
Overwhelmingly, each woman’s message is one of resilience and visibility. Throughout the documentary, at different moments, and in different words and actions, Liyah, Koko, Daniella, and Dominique all embrace shameless self-acceptance and deliver messages of affirmation and self-love: “I don’t need to be anything you say I need to be.”
The documentary balances both sorrow and joy, alternating between intimate scenes and revelations of both heartbreak and love, documenting the ways each woman finds happiness, laughter, and possibility even as she confronts transphobia and violence. Kokomo City showcases four women who illuminate the rooms they enter, who are looking towards the future, promising hope and inspiring the generations to come.
As the film winds down to its final minutes, Koko shares, in an emotional and riveting declaration, that she wants to be heard — that she wants to be a voice for girls who are silenced, to talk to those women directly and reassure them they are not alone in their journey.
While she did just that, and while Kokomo City humanizes and highlights the luminosity of Black trans women and sex workers, months after the documentary premiered at Sundance Film Festival with rave reviews, Koko Da Doll was tragically killed in Atlanta. As we remember and honor Koko’s light and continue celebrating Black trans women, we must also remember to continue rejecting and pushing back against the hostility and violence that Black trans women experience every day.
Kokomo City is a moving revelation, a reminder, a call to fiercely protect and love our Black trans sisters without restraint, to cherish all Black women as we are. As we resume the work of building a brighter, safer future for all QTBIPOC and the LGBTQ+ community at large, may we find some comfort and inspiration in remembering the way Smith’s documentary reveals, and revels in, the revolutionary power of Black trans existence.
Kokomo City screens at the Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival on Sunday, July 16 at 7:00PM in DGA 1. You can purchase tickets here.
Kayla Thompson (she/they) is a writer, advocate, and community consultant who recently graduated from New York University (NYU) cum laude.
Thompson is also an Outfest Inclusive Press Fellow for the Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival. Learn more about the program here.
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