“The Audacity To Be Loved”: D. Smith Discusses ‘Kokomo City’
By Suyin Haynes
Kokomo City opens with a bang. Liyah is lying on her bed, a giant stuffed teddy bear in the background, as she recounts a past meeting with a man. Just as things were getting sensual, she noticed a gun next to him. “This was one of the most scariest moments of my life doing sex work…it’s either his life, or mine,” she says. As she narrates her shock and the ensuing tussle, playful, bombastic music intersperses with her speech. This scenario ended amicably, but Liyah reminds the audience that’s not always the case. “In this game, either you get out of it, or you end up dead, you end up popped. That’s just how it is.”
This masterful mixture of light and dark is at play throughout Kokomo City, D. Smith’s directorial debut, which won the NEXT Innovator Award and NEXT’s Audience Award at Sundance in January and was released in July by Magnolia Pictures. The film follows four main protagonists—Liyah Mitchell, Dominique Silver, Daniella Carter, and Koko Da Doll— living in New York City and Atlanta, as they share their own experiences as well as their perspectives on sex work, Blackness, trans womanhood, and more.
Smith, who also edited and produced the film independently without any support from a major studio, lab, or workshop, had a very clear vision of what Kokomo City would both look and sound like. Filmed in black and white, the four protagonists give candid, unfiltered, uncensored interviews in their personal spaces. “It was very difficult for me not to manipulate what they said to make trans women or myself look better,” self-taught filmmaker Smith, who hails from a successful career as a music producer who worked with artists including Lil Wayne, CeeLo Green and Katy Perry, told Documentary. “I had to respect their truth. This is how people talk. This is how trans women talk, and how the guys that support or meet up with trans women talk.”
In Kokomo City, the danger and reality for women like, and including, the film’s protagonists, is emphasized throughout. “I’ve almost been killed two to three times. Just to even still be here? All my girlfriends are dead and gone,” Koko tells the camera.
Her words take on an even more profound meaning given events since Smith made the film. When I watched Kokomo City at BFI Southbank earlier this year, the audience, so energized and buzzing from the final scenes, fell silent upon reading the closing credit slide, which shared that Koko was murdered after the film’s completion.
Kokomo City continues to travel the international film festival circuit, heading next to IDFA. In this conversation, Smith discusses her pathway into filmmaking from the music industry, the clarity of her vision for Kokomo City right from its inception, and the impact of Koko’s murder and loss. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: Tell us about the genesis of this film. Why did it feel important to you to make now?
D. SMITH: It was important for so many reasons. There were personal reasons, and there were some social reasons, obviously. But I think mostly, it was just my personal experience as a trans woman who was ousted from the music industry. I was a music producer when I started to transition in 2014. I was just drawn to finding stories as similar to mine as possible and even though my experience was quite different than the protagonists in the film, there was still this thread of being shunned, swept under the rug, and feeling unprotected, unwelcome, and unwanted. I wanted to shed light on their experiences and their perspective as trans women that happened to be sex workers.
D: As a first time filmmaker, where did you begin when you embarked on a project like this? Did you engage in any workshops or have any lab support?
DS: No workshops, no schooling, not even YouTube. I think what was most profound for me was the passion and also quite literally, the vision that I saw of Kokomo City. I saw it in black and white, I saw the grittiness, I felt the grittiness of the girls’ stories—even literally, the grit in their vocal tone. I was looking for all of those things and wanted to combine all of these nuances to make this film. I thought it would be quite refreshing and striking in the sense of a film like this having never been shot this way before. Transgender stories are so often repeated and the ingredients are so often the same. I was very inspired to just do what I saw in my head and that took me not being influenced by any outside forces.
D: I’m glad you mentioned the black and white visual element as I found that particularly striking. Can you share more about your intention and thought process behind that decision?
DS: Black and white has always been this element of class and elevation, and I really wanted to drive home this new idea of telling trans stories that could be elevated and that could feel filmic and quite sophisticated, no matter what the topic is, or who the subjects are. I just thought that dichotomy or that juxtaposition would be really fun to do. Black and white has always been the front-runner of the style.
D: In terms of the film’s protagonists, how did you come to connect with them and invite them to become part of the process?
DS: I found the girls through social media and also just word of mouth honestly. I would go to the Instagram pages of popular trans women—celebrity trans women, if you will— and I went through their comments and found some of the girls that way. I combined the girls that I gravitated to the most and thought about the cast and what felt good together.
D: There's a sense of intimacy in the way you film and frame the girls, whether they’re getting ready in their bedrooms, or spending time with their lovers. Can you tell us more about your approach to this?
DS: There are images from movies that I saw growing up as a Black child that I can’t get out of my head, when I saw a Black man loving a Black woman in the most elegant, intimate, dignified, and romantic way. Like Boyz n the Hood (1991) for example, there are a lot of elements in that film that I really was inspired by as a child. I wanted that same feel in Kokomo City. I also thought that maybe there’s a young trans girl, maybe who hasn't even transitioned yet, who can look at that and understand that there is someone for her, you know? Trans women absolutely have the audacity to be loved.
D: You mentioned your background in the music industry earlier, and in Kokomo City, you also oversaw the sound design and music production. What role does music play for you in the film, and how do you think it becomes part of the storytelling?
DS: It was very personal to me. I have a lot to prove as a creator and outside of telling really important stories, my story needs to be told as well. My story is that I am a music producer and I consider myself talented, and I was done improperly by the industry. There’s a lot of unfinished business in my spirit—I am not done with creating music, I am not done with being a creative person. Music really just sets the tone for any project. It was very important that I use music that probably wouldn’t be expected, but also that represents who I am. It was a safe space for me to create and it was even more gratifying that people were actually able to share and feel that experience.
D: The final frames of the film are so striking—finishing on the footage of Koko, Danielle, Liyah, and Dominique in powerful stances and positions, before the final slide that shares Koko’s death. What do you hope audiences take away from this film?
DS: That’s probably the most difficult question because there are so many things that have to be unpacked in this story of trans women and the Black community. What I really want people to walk away with is just some sense of optimism and curiosity and respect, and to have empathy for one another.
Losing Koko is still one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to process. I’ve never been so shaken by a loss in my life. I tried my best not to ignore or brush under the rug, but just to shine a light on another side of being transgender. My number one thing was to show the human side, to show the fun, tangible side of being transgender. It’s just sad that the very thing that I tried to avoid is the center of it all and it hits so close to home. It also validated the purpose of this film. Her name, her spirit, her legacy, her voice will never be in vain. It will never go away. It will stay with us for generations to come.
Suyin Haynes is a London-based freelance journalist covering identity, culture, and underrepresented communities. Her writing has appeared in TIME, CNN, the Guardian, ELLE and more. She is a Visiting Lecturer at City, University of London, and is the creator of the Substack newsletter Ginkgo Leaves.