Some films seem heavy from the outset. Taking on a number of Black transgender sex workers as its subject while splitting time between New York and Georgia––culturally different, if still not completely free nexuses of American culture––Kokomo City might appear this way. A documentary where its subjects are amongst the most vulnerable people in the country, you’d expect maybe something akin to the more seemingly downbeat tone of a recent documentary on the same subject, The Stroll, which positioned itself as an official history of sorts.
Yet from its opening scene one of the ladies and most vital mouthpieces, Liyah, recounts an appointment with an Atlanta rapper who brought a gun to the proceedings, only to have light, almost cartoonish music and a number of rapid-fire edits accompany her tale. Essentially, the bouncy tone is established quickly. Easing you in, but also showing the film’s respect for its women in not making them pure victims for a middle-class white audience to gawk at, the film is a delicate balancing act. After all, still having to acknowledge the capability for violence that hovers around them at all times (particularly in how clients will see the act of sex with them as needing to be followed by self-loathing acting out of their masculinity), it allows a brief snapshot of a world that, while not challenging per se, is still refreshing.
With a quartet of women at its center, it curiously still makes a point to further acknowledge the role of the client. This represents a risk of the film’s conception, being how it’s also partly about their relationship to cis men; interviewing a number of regulars and admirers who’ve struggled coming to terms with their attraction to trans women in the middle of such a masculine culture. Though as one of the girls bluntly states, “hood guys wanna get fucked”––the film not shying away from this with comical reenactments of exaggerated blowjobs that might, in its raucous bawdiness, seem like a parody of the softcore you saw late at night on the Showcase channel decades ago. But letting the girls opine on their own worries about being fetish objects while still sympathetic to these men in their lives, the film is a well-rounded tale aware of the push-pull we feel.
And there’s more tricky terrain to navigate. There’s certainly some self-consciousness in its own feeling as an art object; shot in luminous digital black-and-white with cutaways to glossy slow-motion imagery, it definitely has a foot in the world of the music video, with director D. Smith’s background pointing to that not being coincidental. A hint of pop to the heavy subject matter might ruffle some feathers, but you get the impression this is partly how the women view themselves and their daily contradictions.
The film is a little repetitive in its observations, even at the very brief runtime of 73 minutes, yet I still feel I’ll fondly remember its subjects and the glances into their lives. Just reckoning with a world so sad and the people willing to keep a straight face throughout is inspiring in its own right.
Kokomo City opens in theaters on Friday, July 28.