There are no glam shots or red carpet moments in Kokomo City, which is making its debut at Sundance Film Festival 2023. Filmmaker D. Smith wanted to capture a raw, edgy and rare look into the lives of Black transgender women and explore their relationship with the Black community and themselves. Shot documentary style in black and white, Smith leaves no stone unturned as Kokomo’s four stars share the realities of their encounters as sex workers and transitioning. Smith also gives voice to the stars' clients and partners. “We all talk about it in the studio, at home, in church, and we can't keep brushing it under the rug,” the music producer-turned-debut director tells EBONY. “This is going to put a huge chunk on the table.” Smith devoted three years to the project, sleeping on friend’s couches throughout the process.
Standing up for rights since her time in the music industry, Smith has encountered a fair share of less-than-enlightened thoughts about the transgender and LGBTQ+ communities. Here Smith shares with EBONY her commitment to elevating the rarely-heard voices of transgender women.
EBONY: What inspired you to make this project?
D. Smith: I was a working producer in the business for over 15 years. I had a really good reputation and was supporting myself and my friends and family. When I decided to transition on the precipice of me going further in my career, everything just halted. All the phone calls, the opportunities, all of the industry invites stopped, and I lost everything. In two short years, everything was just gone. I started living on my friend's couch, which was very embarrassing. And I went into a deep depression mode, which I wasn't too familiar with, and it really got the best of me. I had this idea to do this documentary, Kokomo City, because I thought damn, what if I had to do sex work to sustain myself? I don't know anything but music, so it crossed my mind. Imagine all the trans girls that are doing sex work because they have no other options. And only simply because they're transgender.
You went to different directors and tried to get people to work with you and finally, you had to pick up a camera and do it yourself.
Hearing you say that, it's crazy. But it's crazy that I even considered anyone else shooting this. I knew I was just gonna micromanage anyway because I wanted it shot in a certain way. My issue was I didn't have money to buy a camera. I didn't have any money or lenses. I ended up asking a friend of mine if he would be interested in investing in what I needed, and it took him 30 seconds to say yes.
How did you discover your artistic talent?
I've always been an artistic child. Sitting on a couch, if something felt off to me compositionally, I would move a lamp into another position for balance and composition. I was in performing art schools from fourth grade till high school for visual arts—painting and drawing, stuff like that. I’ve never done any video professionally.
What were you surprised to learn about the sex work industry from your talent?
That's a great question. I was telling a friend of mine that when I started to interview the girls, arrogantly thought I was going to be their savior, this inspiration and light that you don't have to do this. But in that I realized, these girls have their own apartments. They have their own cars, shoes, clothes and paid bills, they're comfortable. And here I am with all these accolades and I am completely broke and homeless. Not to glorify sex work, but they are survivors. I was I thought I was gonna find a loophole, but that just isn't practical for a trans girl that's just starting to transition, two months in and the medicine hasn't really settled and you're trying to figure out what makeup is good for you. No one's gonna hire you when you're in that phase. The easiest thing for these women to do is sex work.
How did you pull together your stars together for the film?
I interviewed each of them to really hear their stories and get an idea of their personalities. But I also let the girls know immediately that this is not what you're going to be used to, it’s not going to be red carpet, pageantry talk, I want you to completely be yourself and free and liberated to do that. I told them my motive was to create a new dialogue where people could actually watch and enjoy but also be educated and create some type of empathy for trans people, not not a pity party, but just on a basic level of humanness. I made it very clear what my plans and goals were and that we're not doing makeup or glam squad. We're never conveyed as just us. We’re always shown as polished or dead, there's no tangible real trans girl that’s being represented. And it worked. They felt so comfortable with me, we would eat and we had drinks. I wanted how we act as trans women regularly to be conveyed in the film.
At times the movie is extremely raw. How do you want to it to speak to viewers who may have misconceptions about trans people?
Pioneering is never easy. It's a sacrifice, honestly. And these girls possibly have made some sacrifices, taking this first step forward that a lot of girls wish they could do to be looked at as humans, and I'm sure there's gonna be a lot of people not happy with this. But these are the reasons why I made the film. Because in my opinion I just don't feel like the ball is rolling as fast or as far as it can go. As Black people, we're pretty intelligent and we know how to talk to one another through body language, with our eyes, food and music; we know our language. And I thought, why isn't our language being represented? You cannot deny someone's story—you have a trans woman shaving in the film, that is reality. I just don't understand why anyone wants to dispute that or be ashamed of it. That is true transgenderism. Some people are in different places on the spectrum. And we have to respect everyone's process and what we have to go through to be the women that we see ourselves as.
How can we create a place where people can come together and talk about transgenderism?
This is not just about the trans women here, there are Black men in the film, too. It's about us as a people. I'm going to promise you, this is going to help the conversation happen a lot sooner. As Black people, a lot of times our childhood is full of trauma, and we share a lot of those things. This film will not be denied; it's needed. One day we're going to have to face who we are as Black people. We're not weak, but we're very complex and we're special and we have to embrace all of us.
What do you want people to take away from this documentary?
I really want people to understand how magical trans women are. We don't get the opportunity to really show that natural aspect of us as true trans people because we're so busy defending ourselves throughout the day and protecting ourselves and looking over our shoulders. It just really reminded me how beautiful transgenderism is. That's why this film is so important. I want us to shake hands with society and figure out how we can all be a part of it.
Kokomo City is playing at Sundance Film Festival 2023 from January 21 through January 27.