Liyah Mitchell appears in KOKOMO CITY by D. Smith, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. | Photo by D. Smith. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

All jobs suck, but sex work has a slightly more literal spin on that. In specific, the lives of Black trans sex workers seem wildly, unfairly exhausting. Director D. Smith’s “Kokomo City” gets into the finer details of specific and wretched occupational hazards and broader issues of identity within that community.

A black-and-white film about women who loathe clearly defined boundaries and borders, it is a brief descent into lives at risk. The vital, compelling, important voices largely make up for what is an otherwise run-of-the-mill documentary. Is it too much to ask a nonfiction film to have both a compelling subject and some kind of narrative structure?

Like so many docs, “Kokomo City” is just people talking straight to camera for the entire running time, without any build, arc, or momentum. You could cut and paste any of the 5-minute speeches anywhere else in the movie without confusing or changing anything. This isn’t to say that what is being said is dull or unimportant, quite the opposite. Time spent listening to these women is absolutely indispensable.

Liyah Mitchell opens the film with a terrifying experience she shares like a party anecdote. It involves grabbing the gun of a man who had paid her for sex. You know, because that is inherently hilarious for most of us… Her candor immediately establishes the gigantic, uncrossable moat between where Mitchell and her peers live and the bubble-wrapped safety of the worlds that most of us call home.

Each of the women describe a uniquely shared experience. Dominique Silver digs into the economics, Koko Da Doll bluntly probes masculinity, and Daniella Carter casts a wide philosophical net on intentional othering. They are wickedly observant, hilarious, brazen figures who are often, inexplicably, dubbed over with goofy music.

As odd a complaint as that may seem, it is more distracting than can be described to listen to someone unpacking the very definition of what it means to be a Black woman while what sounds like an elevator music version of the “Benny Hill Theme” plays. “Yakety Sax” has no place here, even if it is a jazz cover.

Seetting aside the soundtrack, it is strange that we don’t come to know more about the four women in focus by the end. They seem almost impossibly candid, their vibrant personalities shining through, but “Kokomo City” doesn’t present them as fully realized. They talk so profoundly about the nature of their work and identities, but understanding their lives in more context would have benefitted the film more than having so many similar philosophical reflections.

That being said, the film barely scrapes over 70 minutes, and this is not a chorus we hear songs from often. This means that the repetition doesn’t outright ruin anything, even if it feels like there was more “there” there. But maybe “Kokomo City” is just an opening introduction, a first meeting between many audience members and Black trans women of any kind, let alone those involved in sex work. In that sense, in simply making this community “real” to those who had previously only had abstract understandings, it is a thoroughly compelling and noteworthy way to spend a little over an hour.

Grade = B

Other Critical Voices to Consider

Carla Hay at Culture Mix says “There’s some nudity in ‘Kokomo City’ (including a striking visual of Silver toward the end of the film), but the emotional nakedness that these women express is really why ‘Kokomo City’ will stand the test of time as one of the most impactful documentaries made about transgender women.”

Morgan Rojas at Cinemacy says “D. Smith has taken a conversation that has been purposefully avoided for years and made a feature film that shines a bright spotlight on these vulnerable, human experiences.”

Josh Parham at Next Best Picture says “One cannot help but commend the efforts of ‘Kokomo City’ and what it is attempting to bring to the forefront. Trans representation deserves a showcase during these inhospitable times, and elevating those who deal in professions many might find unsavory only shows the lengths many go to just to live another day.”

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