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Film gives voice to black trans women

New documentary by D. Smith was made with a determination to allow black trans women to tell their own stories
Issue 2864

Kokomo lets black trans women tell their stories

Kokomo City is a raw, honest look at the lives of four black trans women in the US.  Directed by D Smith, the film takes you on a tour from New York to Georgia. 

The film’s subjects—Daniella Carter, Koko Da Doll, Liyah Mitchell and Dominique Silver—transfix the audience with tales of their past and dreams for the future.  All of the women ­featured in the film are either sex ­workers or have done sex work in the past. 

Each presents a different perspective of working in such a dangerous industry.  The film never shies away from the reality of sex work even if, at times, the subjects present encounters with men who’ve paid for sex as humourous. 

In the first minutes of the film, Liyah explains how a man came to her apartment with a gun—which she was forced to wrestle off him.  In the closing minutes of the film Koko recounts how three of her friends are dead—two of them were killed by men. 

And tragically in April, Koko herself was murdered.  In an Instagram post, D Smith wrote that Koko was “the latest victim of violence against black transgender women”. 

While the film celebrates being trans, being a woman and being black, it’s about much more than that.  The subjects in this ­documentary rage against a system that forces them to exist on society’s outskirts, to be so marginalised and vulnerable. 

They are clear that there aren’t many options for black trans women in the US—­especially when you’re poor.  For Koko it was poverty, homophobia and transphobia that meant she began sex work.

She was thrown out of her home by her sister and her husband, who said he felt “uncomfortable” being around her.  After that, she began living in a car with her mother and another sister. Koko says she was forced to engage in sex work because it kept a roof over their heads.  

The film also ­interrogates masculinity. Several men interviewed in the film explain how they have been made to feel shame by others because they had relationships with trans women. 

According to data collected in 2022, of those transgender people who were murdered between 2017 and 2021, 73 percent were black trans women. 

This is despite black trans women only making up just 13 percent of the trans population. And while the statistics are shocking, this film isn’t just about these numbers. Its aim isn’t to shock or sensationalise the audience. Instead, it gives a voice to those who are so often dehumanised. 

A black and white palette gives the film a sometimes dream-like quality. Scenes of real life streets and people are interspersed with shots of dance sequences or ­dramatised scenarios. 

But despite stylised sequences, the film is unflinching in presenting the reality of the lives of black trans women. And this reality of a racist and transphobic system is present in every aspect of this film— even how it was made. 

The director D. Smith is an award-winning songwriter-producer.  When she decided to ­transition, all her job ­opportunities dried up.  Several directors rejected her idea for Kokomo City, so she decided to film it herself. 

In the same way that the reality of oppression runs through every aspect of this film, so does the resilience of the black trans women who made it possible. 

Kokomo City in cinemas from 4 August 2023

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