Review: ‘Kokomo City,’ starring Daniella Carter, Koko Da Doll, Liyah Mitchell and Dominique Silver

August 7, 2023

by Carla Hay

Koko Da Doll in “Kokomo City” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Kokomo City”

Directed by D. Smith

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, in the Atlanta area, and in Hollywood, Florida, the documentary film “Kokomo City” features an all-African American group of people discussing African American transgender women who happen to be sex workers and the men who are their customers.

Culture Clash: African American transgender female sex workers are treated as outsiders in many communities and are targets for a higher rate of violence than many other sex workers. 

Culture Audience: “Kokomo City” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in hearing uncensored accounts of the intersections between race, gender, queerness and sex work.

Daniella Carter in “Kokomo City” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Black trans women who are sex workers speak their truth in the memorable documentary “Kokomo City.” It’s raw, it’s real, and it’s an impressive feature-length directorial debut from D. Smith. The black and white cinematography gives the film a classic look. If you’ve ever wondered what African American transgender sex women think about in their everyday lives, “Kokomo City” is a moving and sometimes painful look into these women’s souls.

Not only is Smith (who is an African American transgender woman) the director of “Kokomo City,” she is also the documentary’s editor, cinematographer and one of the producers. Smith is a self-taught filmmaker who previously worked in the music business as a Grammy-nominated producer. (Her most famous music collaborations were with Lil Wayne.) In the production notes for “Kokomo City,” Smith says she directed the documentary because she got rejected by other filmmakers who didn’t want to direct this project.

“Kokomo City” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the grand jury and audiences prizes for the NEXT Innovator Award, which is given to up-and-coming filmmakers with a bold vision. As explained in the documentary, the title of “Kokomo City” is inspired by blues singer Kokomo Arnold’s 1935 song “Sissy Man Blues,” which openly talks about seeking the sexual company of effeminate-looking men or transgender women.

“Kokomo City” focuses on four transgender women telling their stories. There is no voyeuristic aspect to the documentary by showing the women doing sex work, although the documentary has occasional scenes of actors simulating certain sex acts. People who are easily offended by adults taking candidly about sex and using a lot of curse words will probably have a hard time watching “Kokomo City.” However, the movie is about much more than sex. It’s about people struggling to be themselves when they are often shamed by others for wanting to be themselves.

The four women at the center of “Kokomo City” are:

  • Daniella Carter, from New York City, is the most outspoken and funniest of the four women. Based in New York City’s Queens borough, Carter is a non-stop talker who is the type of person who gives unguarded monologues while doing beauty rituals in her bathroom.
  • Liyah Mitchell, from the Atlanta suburb of Decatur, is the most confident of the four women. She’s the one who seems to care the most about being perceived as “tough” and cares the least about always looking “feminine.” She uses a lot of slang (for example, “trade” means “sex-partner customer”) that might be hard for some viewers to understand.
  • Koko Da Doll, from Atlanta, is the most jaded of the four women, but she is also the one who seems the most emotionally wounded. In the documentary, she says that even though she graduated from high school, she’s been functionally illiterate and doesn’t really have any other job skills except being a sex worker.
  • Dominique Silver, from New York City, is the most reserved and graceful of the four women. She places a high value on discretion and thinks it’s very damaging for transgender sex workers to “out” any of their customers.

Having the majority of the screen time consisting of people talking might seem like a dull way to present a documentary. But the people interviewed in “Kokomo City” are definitely not dull. Some of their stories are harrowing. “Kokomo City” opens with Mitchell telling a story about getting into a physical fight with a customer, who brought a gun with him to their tryst. Mitchell says she felt threatened by seeing this firearm, so she grabbed the gun and found out that the trigger didn’t work. The customer wanted his gun back, so he got into a brawl with her.

“We started tumbling down the stairs together, fighting over this damn gun,” Mitchell continues. The customer eventually gave up the fight, took his gun, and drove away. According to Mitchell, the client then contacted her and texted her a message saying, “You ruined my life.” The customer than explained that he’s a rapper in Atlanta who carries the gun for protection. Mitchell says that she and the customer reconciled and then hooked up for a sexual encounter.

Whether or not this story is true isn’t the point. It’s an example of the literally rough and tumble lives that sex workers live that are discussed in sometimes graphic details in “Kokomo City.” One of the constant things that these sex workers say about almost of their customers is these are men who present themselves to the world as very masculine and heterosexual. Their customers usually have wives or girlfriends who have no idea that their men have a secret desire to have sexual encounters with transgender women. Koko Da Doll says that most of her customers want to be with transgender women who have big breasts and big penises.

The sex workers interviewed in the documentary also say that their customers have a variety of requests and needs. Some customers don’t want to acknowledge that transgender women have male genitals, while other customers very much want the transgender sex worker’s male genitals to be part of the encounter. The sex workers in this documentary say that many of their customers are prominent men, some of them celebrities, who keep their desires for transgender women very well-hidden from the public.

“Kokomo City” also interviews four African American men, with only one admitting to being sexually involved with a transgender woman. A man who is identified only as XoTommy and his transgender girlfriend Rich-Paris are interviewed where they live in Hollywood, Florida. Rich-Paris is also a sex worker. XoTommy and Rich-Paris say they met through “a mutual friend,” but they also give the impression that XoTommy was her customer. XoTommy mentions that most of his family members already know that he likes to be with transgender women.

Rich-Paris says that violence has always been an occupational hazard for sex workers—even more so if the sex worker is a transgender woman of color. “Violence happens after the orgasm,” Rich-Paris comments. “They [the customers] feel like their masculinity is threatened.” She says of transgender women: “A lot of us are way [more like] women than cis[gender] women. The only thing is we have is male parts.”

In a separate interview, Mitchell says: “Most cis women don’t want to date bisexual men. Me, personally, I love bisexual men. There are different guys who are with you for different reasons and different things.”

“Kokomo City” also acknowledges that African Americans are often taught homophobia from a young age, with those in the male gender getting the most pressure to be heterosexual. Black men who do not conform to heterosexual norms are terrified of being shamed by members of the community, which is why the “down low” culture exists for men who pretend to be heterosexual to most people in their lives but who live secret queer lives that often involve hiring sex workers to fulfill those needs.

Atlanta-based songwriter Michael Carlos Jones, nicknamed Lø, says in the documentary that he’s been “talking” online with a transgender woman and has flirted with her, but he hasn’t met her in person. Jones also says he’s never acted on his curiosity to have a sexual encounter with a transgender woman. “I love women,” he states, while adding that he’s also attracted to women whom he considers to be hard to get.

When Jones isn’t name-dropping the celebrities he says he’s worked with (including Sean Combs, Janet Jackson and Beyoncé), or bragging about things no one cares about (“I smoked weed with Rick James”), Jones seems to be a study in contradictions. He wants to give the impression that he’s an open-minded free spirit who loves to party, and he admits he’s sexually attracted to transgender women. And yet, he won’t admit to even kissing a transgender woman. He doesn’t sound very believable about never being in sexual contact with a transgender woman, especially when he says he’s had sexual encounters in various states of intoxication.

Lenox Love, the CEO of Lenox Love Entertainment (based in Atlanta), is shown briefly in the documentary when he talks about promoting a Hush Night for transgender female exotic dancers at a local nightclub. He says that Hush Night is an easier and safer way for transgender sex workers to find customers, compared to looking for customers on the streets. According to Love, many of the men who go to Hush Night are famous and have a very different public image about their sexuality than they do in private.

“Kokomo City” also interviews two men in a car in The Bronx, New York. They’re identified only by the names INW Tarzan and Lexx Pharoah. Tarzan says that African American men “can’t accept being with a trans woman in public because it’s their ego and … they feel like the world is going to belittle them for what they like. If they’re married and have children, that’s something that could compromise the whole situation, whatever job they have.”

Pharoah adds, “I think acceptance is part of the problem.” Tarzan has this advice to men who have “down low” encounters with transgender women: “Don’t live a double life.” Why are Tarzan and Pharoah in this documentary? Were they cruising for transgender sex workers but won’t admit it on camera? (It sure seems that way.)

The fact that most of the men who are interviewed in this documentary have aliases is proof that there’s still a lot of shame and secrecy that African American men have in even associating with transgender women. It’s also important to point out (and it’s also mentioned in the documentary) that not all of the customers of these sex workers are African American. However, the sex workers interviewed in this documentary say that their African American male customers are the most likely to want to hide their sexual activities with transgender women.

Silver says this secrecy is the only way that transgender sex workers can realistically stay in business. She firmly believes that sex workers should not “out” any of their customers. “When you expose them, it dries up the well,” Silver comments. “That doesn’t bring good karma. At the end of the day, they’re suffering because they’re not living in their truth. And that’s punishment enough.”

The issues of secrecy and infidelity are intertwined with sex work, since most of sex workers’ clients are married or are in committed relationships. Prostitution is still illegal in most places in the United States. The customers usually don’t get punished as harshly as the sex workers. These are some of the reasons why sex work will continue to be controversial. “Kokomo City” does not pass judgment but it doesn’t portray sex work as glamorous or “victimless.”

Carter is the most blunt in the documentary when talking about what she thinks about how her customers usually have cisgender women as sex partners at home but still seek out transgender sex partners elsewhere. She believes that cisgender women and transgender women, especially in the African American community, are pitted against each other but actually have more in common than people would like to think.

Carter doesn’t mince words when she says of her trans womanhood: “It hits so close to home that it may be in your home when you’re not there.” But she also says that when it comes to the blame game, it’s important to remember who’s the one doing the most harm to others: “We’re normalizing grown men taking advantage of our bodies,” Carter comments, while she also says of her sex work: “This is survival work.”

“Kokomo City” is not a “happy hooker” movie. Most of the women in the documentary come right out and say that they would rather be doing something else other than sex work to make the type of money that they need. All of the sex workers have similar stories of turning to sex work because many places won’t hire them because they are transgender.

Most transgender people are also shunned by their families. Koko Da Doll is the only sex worker in the documentary who mentions her family. She says that after she was homeless with her mother and sister, they both ended up rejecting her when she started living as a trans woman.

Silver says she got into sex work because it was the only work that she could find that paid enough for the cosmetic surgery that she says she needs to fully transition into the gender she knows she is. Koko Da Doll says she started doing sex work when she was homeless. Koko Da Doll repeatedly tries to put a hard exterior by saying that she only cares about her customers’ money. But she also gets teary-eyed when she says, “All I know is escorting, and I want to try to do something different.”

Sadly, Koko Da Doll never got that chance. On April 18, 2023, Koko Da Doll (also known as Rasheeda Williams) was shot and killed in Atlanta. Her accused killer is a 17-year-old male, who was arrested for murder, aggravated assault and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. As of this writing, the case has not yet been resolved. The epilogue of “Kokomo City” includes an “in memoriam” to Koko Da Doll. Throughout “Kokomo City,” the transgender women say that they always feel they are in danger just for existing, and know they could be murdered just because they are transgender.

Smith’s style of cinematic storytelling for “Kokomo City” is intimate and unflinching, but the documentary also has artsy shots edited in that show appreciation for the surroundings where the interviews take place. There’s some nudity in “Kokomo City” (including a striking visual of Silver toward the end of the film), but the emotional nakedness that these women express is really why “Kokomo City” will stand the test of time as one of the most impactful documentaries made about transgender women. “Kokomo City” is a powerful account of transgender women trying to survive in a world where many people don’t want transgender women and many other LGBTQ+ people to live. It’s a meaningful testament to how people’s bodies and sexualities should not take away their human rights.

Magnolia Pictures released “Kokomo City” in New York City on July 28, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cities on August 4, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on August 15, 2023.

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