“As I pull down his pants, I notice that there is … a big-ass Glock next him. Honestly, this was one of the … scariest moments of my life.” The first three and half minutes of Kokomo City, D. Smith’s documentary about four Black trans sex workers, seem to portend a wholly somber account of the dangers of the profession. The scene is black and white, the camera handheld, the vibe overtly gritty. But as Liyah Mitchell recounts the experience from a rumpled bed, funky beats swell in the background, and the tussle between her and her john over the gun is reenacted as though to a Blaxploitation score. “I introduced myself again and he introduced himself again,” Mitchell grins at the end of the story, establishing that neither party was injured. “And we decided to fuck.”

Welcome to Kokomo City, a film as sunny as it is sobering, and one that refuses to moralize. Named for blues icon Kokomo Arnold’s 1935 song “Sissy Man,” which highlights cis-male heterosexual attraction to trans women, Smith’s 70-minute debut challenges assumptions about both sex work and gendered identity — especially Black masculinity and what constitutes natural sexual chemistry.

“Personally, I don’t care about passability,” Mitchell tells us later, grooming in front of a full-length mirror, “because it stops you from living life the way you want to live life.” Like Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker’s The Stroll, another Sundance hit this year, Kokomo City is anchored in the perspective of those who are used to being stigmatized by their families, communities, and transphobic cis-women. In this case, the four women profiled — Mitchell, along with Daniella Carter, Koko Da Doll, and Dominique Silver — hail from Atlanta and New York. But whereas The Stroll focuses on the part of New York City’s Meatpacking District known for sex work from the 1970s to early aughts, Kokomo City is a more raw, riveting tableaux of individual women striving to earn a living. 

Dominique Silver in Kokomo City, dir. D. Smith, 2023

Of course, what counts as a “living” varies from person to person. Silver, a striking, runway-slim woman who lists her extensive plastic surgery, sports a small but lavish apartment in midtown Manhattan, while Koko Da Doll lives and works in a humbler Atlanta flat, emphasizing that “the only reason I started sex work was because my mom, my sister, and I was homeless.” 

Carter is perhaps the most direct about what it means for any woman, cis or trans, to exchange her looks, body, or merit to move on up in late capitalist America. “My money, my swipe, has the same … value as your sacrifice to start your Fortune 500, to start your cornerstone business,” she explains while soaking in a tub. “I use my body, unfortunately, and you use your brain. But we are ultimately both ambitious women just trying to achieve a goal.”

As assuredly as its heroines strut across the screen, Kokomo City is, at heart, a film wherein trans women school cis women on the fallacy of natural “womanhood.” While much of the doc confronts transphobia issued from Black cis-women, it overtly exposes how deeply this transphobia stems from White supremacy and centuries of conditioning and marginalization. “The Black experience has always been limited to the way in which a White person told us we can live,” Carter emphasizes, “and we threaten that as Black trans people. To Black people who have been conditioned in this [White] mindset — ‘a Black man should be this way, a Black woman should be that way’ — we’re saying, ‘fuck all that.’”

In a time when some ostensive feminists are still lobbying for anti-trans bathroom laws, and many elite White feminists continue to blithely ignore the plight of women whose racial and economic situation wildly differs from their own, the film serves as an irreverent, but urgent reminder that patriarchy and White supremacy go hand in hand. Will Kokomo City make some viewers uncomfortable? Absolutely. As Carter says in the film, “This is risky shit.”

Daniella Carter in Kokomo City, dir. D. Smith, 2023
Liyah Mitchell in Kokomo City, dir. D. Smith, 2023

Kokomo City is currently in theaters nationwide and available to stream on Prime Video.    

Editor’s Note, 8/30/2023, 11:22 am EDT: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the film’s director, D. Smith, as D. Scott. This has since been corrected.

Eileen G’Sell is a poet and critic with recent contributions to Jacobin, Poetry, The Baffler, and The Hopkins Review. Her second volume of poetry, Francofilaments, is forthcoming from Broken Sleep Books....