Survive These Times
By Farihah Zaman
Dir. D. Smith, U.S., Magnolia Pictures
A lyrical, even glamorous documentary in which four black trans women with experience as sex workers play themselves, Kokomo City begins with one of its charismatic narrators, Liyah Mitchell, sharing the story of an encounter gone bad. A gun materializes, a struggle ensues, and the violence that so often seems to be lurking around the corner for women like Liyah rears its head. Yet . . . Liyah’s telling bears none of the trappings of tragedy, and she and her client reach a sweet detente. She spills the tea with all the breathless glee of Janicza Bravo’s under-appreciated fever dream Zola (an adaptation of A’Ziah King’s riveting viral Twitter thread that also touched on sex work with wry honesty). She’s bewildered that it happened, aware of the dangers, but still proud of her strength. There’s some one-crazy-night hilarity to Liyah’s recounting, something thrilling, and, in a world that so often reduces the stories of trans women, black women, and sex workers to pain, something subversive in how she frames herself as an action movie heroine. The film, which is directed, filmed, and edited by D. Smith, honors Liyah’s raconteur personality with playful dramatization. We see a reenactment of the tussle in campy, chaotic close-up, complete with 1960s Batman style sound effects, held together by the kind of funky walking baseline that conjures Pam Grier in Foxy Brown.
The scene vividly sets the tone for the rest of the film, in which Ms. Mitchell, Daniella Carter, Koko da Doll, and Dominique Silver share anecdotes from their work which deepen into reflections on black identity, oppression, masculinity, and womanhood. Smith’s approach is maximalist, employing a range of visual styles but remains agile enough to capture the nuances of these stories because her directorial choices are guided by the words that she is being entrusted with, weaving together clashing emotions, rather than wrapping them into a single thread of polemical discourse.
Sometimes this means emphasizing the absurdity, humor, and joy that can be found in the most challenging times, as in the deliciously jarring opening, and sometimes it means using recreations to depict the distinct intimacies that the participants’ work entails. As we hear their voices or spirited musical interludes, the women are shown in luxurious expressionistic sequences; Liyah lying in her bed, slowly lifting a cigarette to her lips like an old Hollywood star, exhaling smoke in a stream of thin curls, or a shot from above of Daniella falling softly into the grass and looking up at the clouds after a run through the park. The slow motion of the camera caresses their eyes, rather than fixating on their bodies as the women suggest the men they encounter so often do and brings an air of romance into the quotidian spaces of bedrooms, kitchens, and big city blocks. These scenes offer a rare opportunity to see these women at rest, moments when they’re neither required to perform the expectations of their black womanhood, nor serve as vessels for the variety of fantasies projected onto them. The depictions of trans people and in particular sex workers can be so centered around the desires of cis straight men; in contrast, these scenes, in which the participants can simply be, feel not only like an aesthetic strategy but also an act of resistance.
D. Smith also offers images of other black folks working and creating, such as a pair of ballet dancers, their muscles rippling as they defy gravity, paired with the audio from an interview with a man reflecting on strength, beauty, and the conception of black manhood in his community. These images collectively feel like an archive being created in real time, an effect which has some poignance given the notorious gaps and losses in records of black life, particularly beyond politicized images. Filmmakers like Garrett Bradley (America, Time) have used cinema to reimagine what records of the past might have included, and in doing so create images that serve as contributions to the archive of the future. Similarly, if in a very different style, Smith moves towards rectifying the limited representations of women like her protagonists, which sometimes feel spotty even within the context of African American and LGBTQIA+ historical records, with bold choices that demonstrate how the act of bearing witness can be stylized, subjective. The choice to film in black-and-white mutes environmental distraction and emphasizes the women on screen, and the formality and elegance of Smith’s shots work as a harmonious counterpoint to the sometimes bawdy and always frank delivery from the gworls. Not only does this malleability of tone and technique better reflect the women’s experiences, it draws out and externalizes them, validates the invisible with the gift of tangibility, and utilizes the artifice of cinema to create portraiture that feels more emotionally true, an impression supported by the participants’ eagerness to travel with and discuss the film.
In a previous life, D. Smith was a successful record executive who has described being essentially ex-communicated from the music industry when she transitioned in 2014. Smith brings her knowledge of music to her film, making bold, thoughtful choices like the use of Randy Crawford’s "Street Life” to accompany Liyah’s opening story. The song is lyrically appropriate, and its shades of disco and early house music build a connection to black queer history. In the ’70s these genres sprang from the community’s experiences and desire to create safe and loving spaces, even daring to openly cite the idea of a queer utopia. Underground gatherings like The Loft party in New York, which famously touts the motto “Love Saves the Day,” were considered a necessary counterpart to the Stonewall Riots, because they provided a vision of what queer BIPOC people wanted to build in addition to what they needed to tear down. Considering the ways in which house and disco were quickly pronounced passé by some music elites using barely coded language that amounted to the anxiety that these genres are too gay—Beyoncé’s recent thanks and acknowledgment to the queer community for inventing dance music as we know it was an unusually pleasant change of pace—Smith’s use carries the queer family generational knowledge that black joy, beauty, and narrative agency are as radical as rioting.
Despite Smith’s background in hip hop, pop, and dance music, her film’s soundtrack is eclectic, veering from rock and roll to cool jazz, reiterating each genre’s belonging to the African American community. The title of the film is taken from the musician Kokomo Arnold, a black blues singer-songwriter whose 1935 “Sissy Man Blues” includes the provocative line “Lord if you can’t bring me no woman, please send me some sissy man.” One of the more eccentric choices is “Kazoo Zoo,” a deceptively zippy vaudevillian song with a manic edge reminiscent of the nightmare circus finish of “If You Could See Her,” in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, in which Joel Grey compares his Jewish lover to an ape, anarchically engaging with increasingly widespread Nazism in Weimar Germany. We know instinctively that there must be something ominous throbbing under this kind of desperate exuberance, and that utopia is imagined in response to earthly hell. We know that with politicians and a Supreme Court determined to bend the arc of history unnaturally back towards injustice, in a world of masculinity so fragile it has turned brittle, that Liyah, Daniella, Koko, and Dominique have had rougher nights. Some are harder to transfigure into comedy, and in some stories, the violence is irreparable.
It is a painful duty to note that one of these four women didn’t live to see the July 2023 theatrical premiere of Kokomo City. On April 18, Koko da Doll was fatally shot in her home city of Atlanta, and while police investigations have not conclusively determined if this can be classified as a hate crime, it feels relevant that black trans women experience violent death more than any other single group of people in the United States. This report from the Harvard Civil Liberties Law Review from 2020 is tellingly entitled “America’s War on Black Trans Women,” and refers to the horrifying uptick in the murders among the community that continues apace just about three years later, “a pandemic within a pandemic.”
D. Smith doesn’t force the issue of violence, nor does she center it at the expense of sharing the women’s fuller humanity—she simply shows their interior lives, which inherently leads to more difficult realities, but not before we have gotten to know these women through their stories, thoughts and feelings, rather than their aggregate traumas. Especially memorable is Daniella sitting in the bath, looking direct to camera, and dropping with precise, spiky articulation and barely contained righteous anger her thoughts on the direction of power in this world. “We normalized men taking advantage of our bodies,” she says, and later on, sharing that in her view cis black women “would rather we conform to a system that would kill us rather than to step outside of that system to find our truth.”
These women directly address their black community with arresting specificity. Speaking to the discord from within already marginalized, disenfranchised, and systemically disadvantaged groups can feel like selling out to the man who is looking for ways to turn the impact of their oppression against them. But in their wise words this feels not like an indictment, but rather an illumination of the all-too-common tragedy enacted in hierarchical societies. In an environment of scarcity enforced by those in power, everyone else is left squabbling for minimal resources in order to survive, to hang tightly to whatever scrap of authority one has been afforded. It is sad but powerful to name the consequences of this mindset, which shortchanges all, not just the most devalued among us. In the film industry which, not unlike sex work or any other business of entertainment, is overwhelmingly geared toward satisfying the desires of white, cis, allegedly straight men, creating a film which is primarily a conversation by and for black people is a way of wresting power back, even in words of criticism.
The film also wrestles with the contradicting emotions these women feel about sex work. They may have gained knowledge, community, and a better sense of identity, but they have also felt deeply their lack of choices, of having to default to survival when faced with homelessness and discrimination. If, as the country contends more widely with the nature of good labor practice, we take the view that all workers deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, how do we honor the dignity of those whose work, by their own admission, has also caused them great harm? At present, the only reconciliation I can imagine is to just listen and believe, because to discount the moments of humor and joy, of camaraderie and sisterhood that these women experience, for the sake of a cleaner portrait is also a way of dehumanizing them.
As the film nears its end, Liyah, Koko, Dominique and Daniella all seem to be at a turning point, trying to move past what no longer serves them. Particularly striking is how the conversation among these women turns to the idea of potential; how these women feel theirs can be so crushingly overlooked, even snuffed out, before it can bloom. There is nothing wrong with sex work, but everything wrong with being robbed of the opportunity to learn what moves you. The modest, if threatened progress in our society now allows for more conversations about trans femme identity that touch on the alarmingly higher rates of violent death and suicide in the community, and the cruelty of ending a life simply because these people expressed the true nature of their souls, or because the desire they inspired in a man made him feel ashamed. Rarely, however, do these conversations move into the future, to allow for discussion of not only the loss of life but also the vacuum left in its absence: that these women had more to give, not least of all to themselves, after years of accepting a bare minimum of love and care.
Perhaps this is in part because, living under constant threat, the future does not always feel like it holds promise. Radical black women writers from Octavia Butler to Nikki Giovanni imagine science-fiction futures to offer a vision of black people transcending the daily, grinding injustice so that they might thrive tomorrow. In the film, Koko Da Doll talks about the potential of her sisters, asserting that the world would be lesser if denied their presence, an emotionally rousing thought in a country in which the pursuit of happiness is considered a constitutional right but civil liberties that took decades to earn are revoked in a matter of days. People are more than the sum of their darkest moments. Koko da Doll was not just a black woman, or a sex worker turned musician, or another transgendered person tragically shot down in the street; she was an artist, a beauty, and a courageous human being with potential whose limits we will never learn. Through her depiction in D. Smith’s film, at least, Koko and the other women in Kokomo City have been able to leave a trace of their spirit behind in a world so desperately in need of it.