"In the '90s, you heard gunshots, and that's what put me to sleep, not lullabies," recalls director and Grammy-nominated producer D. Smith about growing up in Opa-locka in northwest Miami-Dade. Her directorial debut, Kokomo City, a dynamic, funny, insightful award-winning documentary about Black transgender sex workers, recently premiered at Sundance Film Festival.
Despite the threats of those early days, Smith had a creative childhood, learning to write music from her drummer father, attending church, and flourishing in visual arts magnet programs. "I also was surrounded, cocooned by music and a great wealth of integrity by my family. I was loved," she says.
Smith moved to New York after 9/11. She struggled, sleeping in parks and singing in the subway for money. There, she was discovered and signed to an Atlanta music label, where she worked with superstars like Lil Wayne, Ciara, and Andre 3000.
But in 2014, after she came out as transgender, the music industry forced her out. She bounced back, making history as the first trans woman on reality show Love & Hip Hop, and started pursuing filmmaking. "As strong as I am as a person, I really went through hell to welcome the person who I am, to defend the person who I am," Smith reflects.
She looked to her stomping grounds — Miami, New York, and Atlanta — for the subjects of Kokomo City. She found them online in the comments section of high-profile trans folks. She didn't want to feature people who had PR reps. Instead, she wanted to work with Black trans sex workers with darker complexions who represent the people who are being targeted and murdered. Tragically, one of the film's stars, Atlanta's Koko Da Doll, was shot and killed on April 18, 2023, after filming had been completed.
Kokomo City explores how stigma and secrecy around transgender identities and sex work in the Black community affects the community as a whole, not just those who are trans and have turned to sex work to survive. Smith offers a fuller perspective by featuring Black men's views, primarily contacts from her time in the music industry. "You become emotionally connected with them, even the guys. They are as vulnerable as the women are. People don't look at it that way," she says.
Kokomo City presents a wonderful balance of stories from women who, without pretension, offer their intelligence, personality, and emotion. The movie effectively focuses on how typical the lives of its subjects are. They're people living rich, interesting lives, and, yes, they also have sex for money. Their transparency in discussing sex work also works to destigmatize it.
Daniella Carter is an intellectual conflicted about how her work affects Black women in relationships with the men who pay her for sex. Dominique Silver is a thin beauty working to pay for gender-affirming surgery. Rich-Paris, who is trans, and Xotommy are a couple in love, and you see the raw intimacy of their union. Koko Da Doll is an incredible and honest storyteller. And Liyah Mitchell is truly the heart of the film. She's funny and charming and exudes a sort of lightness despite the potential threats caused by her work. "Each of them brought something to the table that represented various trans women in the world," Smith says, adding, "Obviously, not all trans women are the same."
Kokomo City is more about exploring a topic than preaching a perspective. "I think that what I wanted to do was put the welcome mat outside the door and say you're welcome to come in here, and you're welcome to ask questions," Smith says. "I'm not a political person, most trans women aren't, but we're pushed into that [role] when we speak our minds. Obviously, we're [then] an advocate or a politician." She feels that puts a lot of pressure on trans people, which can add up.
"We're definitely in a zone where we're not coming up for air," she says. "Lots of times, trans women are pushed, and we're just grinding and grinding. As queer and trans people, we have to learn to press the reset button individually. We can get so lost in that political rabbit hole and the anger we get from social media backlash."
She offers advice to other trans people who're feeling overwhelmed. "We have to turn that off sometimes. Take a breather. Turn the phone off, go to the park, go to the pool, go to the beach. It's okay not to be an advocate for five minutes and be a human. We have to look out and take care of our minds, take care of our space, take care of one another, and remind each other, 'Hey, you're doing a great job, but you're human. Sis, put the phone down. Sis, don't post that today. Sis, just reset.'"
Kokomo City. Starring Daniella Carter, Koko Da Doll, Liyah Mitchell, and Dominique Silver. Directed by D. Smith. Rated R. 73 minutes. Opens Friday, August 4, at O Cinema South Beach (1130 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; o-cinema.org).