Damn These Heels! Film Review: Kokomo City
Director: D. Smith
Kokomo City opens on sex worker Liyah Mitchell laying in her bed, spinning a whirlwind yarn about an instance when one of her clients showed up to an appointment with a gun. Fearing for her life, she grabbed the gun in a panic, leading to a wrestling match that had both Mitchell and her client tumbling down the stairs. The client drove off and reached out to Mitchell afterward, asking what happened. Miscommunications were cleared up, intentions were made clear and Mitchell and the man eventually ended up having sex anyway, a punchline that Mitchell delivers with gut-busting frankness. Kokomo City’s opening scene instantly sets the tone for the rest of the film: heavy subjects lay ahead, and they won’t be confronted without a sense of humor.
Kokomo City follows four Black trans women—Liyah Mitchell, Daniella Carter, Koko Da Doll and Dominique Silver—as they share the various ups and downs of sex work and expound upon how these experiences are indicative of the larger societal issues unique to Black trans women.
Shot handheld in black and white and blending interviews with highly stylized re-enactments, In an interview following the screening, director D. Smith stated she originally envisioned the film as an avant-garde piece and built out from there, synthesizing a style that feels simultaneously timeless and tremendously forward-thinking. Smith directed, shot and edited the film (in iMovie, I might add!) entirely by herself, and she even soundtracked much of it using music she wrote back in her days as a producer. While Kokomo City could have been a very straightforward documentary, it instead soars on a campy, experimental style that can only be described as unabashedly queer.
This style exists not to distract from the film’s message but rather to enhance it. In telling their stories, these women have common experiences between them: a time they slept with a famous athlete or musician, a time that they felt threatened by a client, a time where they turned to sex work to get off the streets. The humor and tenacity with which these women face their challenges is tremendously commendable. But these women agree on one thing: it doesn’t have to be this way. Life shouldn’t have to be this dangerous for them, particularly since their biggest threat is also their main stream of income: Cis men.
Smith is wise to also allow the audience a glance at the other side of the proverbial coin, interviewing multiple cis men who are candid about their interactions with trans women. In their casual discussions, these men point all anti-trans rhetoric back to toxic masculinity. One of the film’s sidestories involves a man nicknamed “Lo” who has found himself enamored with a certain trans woman that he met online, the first that he has ever knowingly pursued. His ignorance often shows, particularly when he states that he feels “brave” for even admitting an attraction to trans women, which stands in stark contrast to the bravery required by these women to simply survive.
Lo has an admittedly clunky, non-PC way of talking about transgender women, and like much of the film, his words and actions are not all perfectly neat and clean, but they are genuine. The film’s uncensored honesty is disarming and absolutely necessary in order to secure better lives for trans people. Kokomo City isn’t afraid to broach difficult or uncomfortable subjects, the most difficult, of course, being violence against sex workers, specifically Black trans sex workers.
Despite being highly sought after by clients, the women of Kokomo City universally agree that society at large does not look after them. Daniella Carter puts it succinctly when she says, “As a trans woman, the best ‘you’ is only seen when you’re a survivalist.” In expressing the dangers associated with sex work, the women of Kokomo City also inadvertently make some profound, sociological musings on the lack of intersectionality afforded to trans women. They face adversity from their cis male clients and also from cis women who, “will love us until they find out their husband wants us.”
Life is dangerous for these women, especially since so few are provided any other real opportunities outside of sex work. As Koko Da Doll put it, “All my girlfriends are dead and gone, two killed by clients.” This comment is made all the more sobering by Koko’s tragic murder earlier this year, not long after the film was made.
Yet, Kokomo City does not wallow in misery and despair. The women universally agree that, despite the dangers of sex work, there’s so much joy to be found in living their most authentic lives. Liyah, Daniella, Koko and Dominique are vivacious women, each with a sharp sense of humor that has clearly allowed them to get this far in life. They all exude a level of authenticity for which most people strive their entire lives.
The entirety of Kokomo City’s primary message can be boiled down to its closing shot: Dominique Silver standing in her room, her robe slightly undone and exposing her nude form, as Smith’s voice sings out the impassioned words of famed abolitionist and feminist, Sojourner Truth: “Ain’t I a woman too?” If Kokomo City’s opening shot sets the film’s tone, then its closing shot sets the hope for a better future, one where trans people and their bodies are celebrated and accepted, openly and free of fetishization. –Seth Turek
Read more on the Damn These Heels! Film Festival:
Damn These Heels! Film Review: The Sixth Reel
Damn These Heels! Film Review: 1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture