At DC/DOX last June I saw “Kokomo City,” which details the lives of four Black trans sex workers facing multiple hardships. Director D. Smith, a trans woman and a Grammy nominee, spoke with me via phone during DC/DOX—and with the film now set to play in theaters this weekend, our conversation has been reposted.
How did you decide to make this documentary?
To do something like this, you really have to understand the culture. Even if it’s not about transgenderism, there is kind of a thin line between really provocative and entertaining [filmmaking]. It’s also very informative in a non-forceful, non-condescending way. Because even for me, as a trans woman, a lot of LBGT films could really feel preachy and really traumatizing. I wanted to do something that felt fresh and that I thought the culture really needed—something fun and cool to watch.
Did you know any of your subjects beforehand?
I basically went to Instagram to high-profile or more popular trans women, if you will. I did find a couple online, but then some were recommended, like Daniella [Carter], who I had never met. I was completely blown away by her TED Talks. I thought there was something very, very special about her being a part of “Kokomo City,” and we hit it off immediately.
Why did you opt to make the film in black and white?
I wanted to do something refreshing, and not the normal kind of transgender narrative. I wanted to do something artistic and filmic. Black-and-white to me represents elevation. You could film anything in black-and-white and it just makes it classic. And it brings this timeless elegance to it.
And I thought the girls’ rawness and boldness with black-and-white could really be something cool to watch.
What type of direction did you give the girls?
I insisted that they didn’t wear makeup most of the film, so there’s no glam. They were completely vulnerable, and this is why they are badasses and they will go down as icons. This is where the magic came [because] they were able to be as vulnerable and relatable and tangible and approachable as possible so that people could feel OK watching this. They are so proud and empowered.
Have you shown Daniella and the other subjects the film yet?
The first night it premiered, let me tell you, it was the highlight of this whole process. And the first time they saw it, you have the anticipation of the audience and the girls and me seeing the film for the very first time on the big screen. It was very intense.
I had the girls sit in my row because I had to stare at every single reaction. I didn’t know how they were going to react. Imagine filming something three years ago and forgetting what you said. So I was a little nervous, even though I stand behind every frame that I shot. I wanted the girls to feel really safe and recognized and represented in the best, dignified way.
Are you hopeful that people beyond the film festival circuit will be able to see “Kokomo City”?
I think my biggest meter has been social media. People that are not in the film world, they are absolutely dying to see this film. I think that…people will generally want to watch this and celebrate it, and it’s something the culture really needs right now.
One sign is that I’ve had a lot of Black women come and applaud me and congratulate me personally. They were actually very emotionally moved by the film. It was just something that I knew had to happen: I had to have Black women feel that this was not a competition—not feel that they were being attacked or excluded. I wanted them to really understand that this is not villainizing Black men. This is a Black story, not a transgender-against-Black-men-and-Black-women story. So I was able to [achieve] that balance where everyone should be able to watch this and pull something from themselves in this film.
Have you experienced any unpleasant backlash on social media because of the film?
This is going to sound really, really, really, really weird, but I am telling everyone on my team, from [distributor] Magnolia [Pictures] to my boyfriend: I welcome those comments. Not everything can be rainbows and umbrellas, but it has been that. I mean you get a couple [negative comments] here and there, but it’s silly because most of the time they have four or five followers.
At the end of the day, what I want is for people to be in their feelings. I want feathers ruffled and I want people to be uncomfortable, and I want people to be agitated or confront the truth regardless of where their perspective is on all of this. Just them talking about it is what we need to happen.
What are your expectations for “Kokomo City” going forward?
I want everybody to know this film came from a place of vulnerability. I hope that people will call their friends and parents, their boyfriends, their girlfriends, their parents, cousins and just have a night out and go watch it as Black people. Obviously, I want everyone there, but it will just mean the world to me if I see groups of Black people, people of color, watching it together and able to laugh and support [the film].
I really do want people to create a dialogue online…about our community and who we are.
I am looking forward to continuing this journey of telling the stories and finding souls and people that deserve the opportunity. I want to be able to support those who are underprivileged and that have remarkable talent that just needs an opportunity. One day that will happen. I don’t know if I can do that right now, but that is what this is all about.
“Kokomo City” will be in select theaters this weekend.