Kokomo City director D. Smith has been on a roll the likes of which few filmmakers ever experience. On Saturday her documentary – an uncensored look inside the lives of four Black trans women in New York and the Atlanta area – won the Audience Award in the Panorama Documentary section at the Berlin Film Festival. A month earlier at Sundance, Kokomo City captured the Audience Award in the festival’s NEXT section, as well as Adobe’s Innovator Prize.
A day before the Sundance world premiere, CAA signed Smith for representation, and a day after the premiere Magnolia Pictures acquired Kokomo City for worldwide distribution. For any filmmaker, especially one making her directorial debut, that’s a lot to process.
“To be very candid, I’ve not had a moment to do that,” Smith tells Deadline as we talk in a plush hideaway on the ground floor of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Berlin. “I thought after Sundance that I was going to take that moment, and it’s never happened. Things are just moving, moving, moving.”
Smith, a Grammy-nominated music producer, shot her debut feature in striking black and white. It stars Daniella Carter, Dominque Silver, Koko Da Doll, and Liyah Mitchell, who offer unfiltered commentary about their experiences, whether it’s their identities as trans and Black women, relationships with men, or frank discussions of sex work.
“A friend of mine always uses this term, ‘Transparency is the new currency,’” Smith says. “People just aren’t biting or buying anything that they can’t relate to anymore. They’re just not. People really want you to put it all out on the table.”
The film begins with Liyah describing what she calls one of the “scariest moments of my life doing sex work,” when she met a client, discovered he had a gun on him and they scuffled over the weapon. Smith cuts between the story and a reenactment of the pair tumbling down a staircase. The client eventually fled. But it’s a story that ends comically, with Liyah explaining that the man actually had intended her no harm, and they later reconnected and had sex.
Dominque, meanwhile, recounts an incident when she performed oral sex on a guy. Afterwards, he discovered she was trans and beat her. “Violence doesn’t happen before the orgasm. It happens after,” she notes. “They act out because they feel like their masculinity is threatened.”
The realness of the film extends to moments that don’t have to do with sex, like a scene that shows Daniella performing a beauty regimen in her bathroom. She applies face cream, telling her reflection in the mirror, “Get that skin nice and c**t, nice and pussy.” Daniella goes over her chin with an electric razor, explaining, “Because I do electrolysis, I can’t wax my face. I have to shave like this.”
“The conversation and the subjects are intimate. This is very rare that we get an opportunity to see such a thing,” Smith observes. “A lot of the times when I was filming, I was kind of like resting on a chaise or the floor, I was relaxed, I had taken my shoes off. I really wanted to feel like I’m at a friend’s house or a cousin’s house. And I wanted people to feel that way. A lot of times I shot lower angles because I was on the floor and I wanted to look like there is kind of a sleepover.”
In 2016, Smith publicly revealed her own transition, posting on Instagram, “…For the first time in my life I am honest. Not only to myself, but to the world around me. I have nothing to hide, which leaves me no choice but to live free.” As a hitmaker in the music industry, she did not face the imperative of doing sex work to make ends meet, but in every other respect the filmmaker’s bond with her characters springs from shared experience.
“Usually, it’s a non-Black trans person telling our stories or editing our stories, watering down the message to appeal to society,” notes Dominique, who joined the conversation at the Ritz with Daniella, hours before their Berlin premiere. “It’s a breath of fresh air to have a Black trans woman help us Black trans women tell our stories and the realness of what we have to deal with in everyday life, in society and our community.”
The film also aims to create a space for Black men to be attracted to and love trans women without stigma. Lenox Love, a club promoter in Atlanta who launched a weekly Hush Night featuring “Sexy Beautiful Transsexual Exotic Dancers,” says in the film, “I am trans-attracted. I do like trans women. I like all women.” Lo, a successful songwriter, says of himself, “I guess you could say I’m a ladies’ man,” but he struggles to assimilate becoming drawn – sexually and emotionally – to a gorgeous trans woman he describes as “Beyoncé fine.” Just the fact that he would appear in the film helps destigmatize the issue.
“I think this is an opportunity, too, for men who felt like they didn’t have a voice and they didn’t have a sense of reflection of somebody to understand their journey. Because they’re on this journey with us,” Daniella says. “They’re losing family, they’re losing community the same way we have. You have two people who just want to be, without judgment. They’re constantly put in the position where they have to explain why they are who they are. And this film should be able to be some kind of pathway, at least to that conversation, that I shouldn’t have to be stripped down in my masculinity to like this kind of woman.”
Daniella not only brings beauty and a vibrant personality to the film, but a keen intelligence and capacity to break down complex societal questions. For example, at one point in the film, she speaks to why Black trans women can prove so unsettling to the hetero-normative Black community.
“The Black experience has always been limited to the way in which a white person told us we could live,” Daniella comments. “And we threaten that as Black trans people, because what we’re saying to Black people who have been conditioned in that mindset that our Black men should be this way and Black women should that way – we’re saying fuck all that.”
In Berlin, she gave no quarter to anyone who would reject the validity of Black trans experience.
“That’s how I look at it. It’s like, have your bias, have your ignorance, but how about this? I’m living in my truth and in that lane I really don’t care too much about where you are at in your journey,” she says. “‘Cuz where I’m at is in my truth. You might be in denial that your husband might want to sleep with me, your brother might like me, but that don’t got nothing to do with me. That’s between you and your maker and whoever else you need to believe in.”
Magnolia Pictures hasn’t announced a release date for Kokomo City, but Smith anticipates it will come out sometime in the summer. She says she aimed it at a particular audience.
“I designed the film for Black people,” Smith says. “That’s why I wanted us to talk like Black people, act like Black people, and we know what that means… We know the side eyes, we know our body languages. And I’ve wanted that. And that’s what they gave us [the women in the film]. You can’t get blacker than this film.”
She adds, “It’s not fair to say that this is an LGBT film when there are men in the film that don’t identify as gay. They’re straight men. So, it’s not an LGBT film.”
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