“I made it very clear to the girls there was not gonna be a glam squad,” laughs KOKOMO CITY director D. Smith. “And they were all for it. Number one: there’s no budget. Number two: I just want to strip down the truth and go there.”
Smith “goes there” in her feature directorial debut KOKOMO CITY. This smart and lively film offers a portrait of four Black transwomen who reflect upon their day-to-day living. The women speak candidly and off-the-cuff about their past or present experience with sex work and use the oldest profession as a door to open wider conversations about the politicization and fetishization of Black transwomen and their bodies. For all the attention that transgender rights and issues have received in recent years, voices of women like Liyah, Daniella, Dominique, and Koko Da Doll have been absent from the conversation.
So too have artists like Smith, who picked up the camera itself when the entertainment industry shut her out when she transitioned. As a two-time Grammy nominated music producer, Smith had a hand in producing some of the top hits of the 2000s working with artists like Lil’ Wayne, CeeLo Green, Katy Perry, and André 3000 to name a few. But seeing how the entertainment industry was merely paying lip service to transgender rights and representation inspired Smith to tell the truth herself. Shot, edited, and directed by Smith herself, KOKOMO CITY is a DIY passion project true to the spirit of Sundance.
POV spoke with Smith ahead of KOKOMO CITY’s Sundance premiere to learn how Smith approached her first feature and how the film opens difficult but necessary conversations while inviting everybody in.
POV: Pat Mullen
DS: D. Smith
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
POV: I understand that when you began your career in music, you were playing in the Subways in New York. How did that prepare you for DIY filmmaking?
DS: It’s either you got it or you don’t. I don’t so much mean the talent. I mean the drive and the determination, which is most of it, right? You really have to believe in yourself or be crazy enough to believe that you can do it. But from throwing myself into the life of the subway singer culture, I know that I was brave enough and talented enough to do that. I just wanted it enough. Doing the film was such a milestone for me because I had run out of resources due to being blacklisted from the music industry for being transgender.
POV: Do you mind speaking more about that? You were doing so well in your career, so what happened?
DS: I love music so much and I love creating music. When I started to transition, I was at a really good place in my career. I was working with a lot of people; a lot of labels were calling me. I had great relationships in the business. And I decided long ago that I wanted to transition, but when I actually started to transition and physically changed the way I dressed or presented myself, people just stopped calling. They literally just stopped—even people that I thought were my friends. There were no blueprints or templates for how to handle a working producer who wants to turn into a transwoman. Especially in the Black community, it caught everyone off guard.
After a few years, I decided, “I’m tired of being broke. I’m tired of sleeping on everyone’s couches.” I did everything except sex work—I’ve never compromised my integrity. I sold fruit on the side of the road. But when I did the film, it gave me new life. I think I did music well. That’s why I had a great reputation, but I didn’t know anything else to do.
POV: I saw your intro video to Sundance where you said a lot of people just kept saying, “Nope.” What were the reasons? What was the pitch?
DS: I was pitching KOKOMO CITY, but it was different. Initially, it was about the lack of presence in the workspace for transwomen. Whether it’s Walmart, an office building, or teaching. Because I was no longer working, it really dawned on me how easy it would be to do sex work because I was so desperate. I felt like I didn’t have any help. I had no one to fix this, no one to call on, and no one to help me through this.
So I struggled for years. I slept on couches and floors and lost everything: my car, my apartment, my recording studio. Then I decided to ask people to help me with the film. Either they didn’t reply or they just flat out told me no. But I think that was another good reason to do KOKOMO CITY. As much as we would like to think that we’re progressing so much as transwomen, which we have, it hasn’t been made normal because when people have to say the words transgender, it’s a whisper. It’s still taboo. You don’t know how people are gonna respond or react to that word. That’s who I am. I am a transgender woman. There’s a lot that needed to be talked about and discussed in my community, Black people, with this film. I utilized that opportunity to do so.
POV: How did you choose the women for the film?
DS: I randomly went to Instagram and YouTube. I found girls where I liked their energy or the way they spoke. It would lead also to other girls. Some girls would not be interested, but they would say, “I think she would be great. She would do it.” It was great reaching out to these girls and explaining the situation. They were all excited.
POV: What conversations did you have with them in terms of how to represent their stories? What feedback did they give you about how their lives should be captured?
DS: I think to move the narrative forward past this place where we can’t really get past. We’ve been stuck there for years. As transgender, we are guilty of not allowing people to approach us in a human way. We want the respect, but our guard is so high and so strong that we don’t really allow people, for the most part, to really learn us. They can’t ask questions. They can’t say certain words; they can’t do certain things. It doesn’t feel human. I don’t feel human most of the time when people are afraid to ask me things or say things. In reality, that’s not how my life is. People are very open when they talk to me. They’re not disrespectful. We put ourselves in this separate category. As much as we want to be a part of everything, we are creating this thing.
The approach to doing KOKOMO CITY was, “Let’s be ourselves.” However we talk, let’s leave the red carpet dialogue away from this. As a matter of fact, let’s not even wear makeup. Forget about glam, or wigs. Let’s strip down and let’s be truthful about who we are. You’re still beautiful whether you wear makeup or not. They’re all gorgeous women. I think that approach really drew people to their stories without feeling like they’re being preached to. No one gave me any pushback. They just all did it. Like some were in bonnets, some were half-naked, some rolling blunts. It was familiar.
POV: How did you develop your relationship with all your characters? There’s a real sense of comfort that lends itself to the tone of the movie.
DS: Trans women for the most part are happy people. We’re just so defensive and protective all day that people don’t get a chance to see that unless we’re in the privacy of our homes or around people that we love and trust. As Black women, walking through a group of Black men could be very terrifying and intimidating regardless how passable you are. It is just the reality. Sometimes it’s easier to walk across the street before you get to them. When I approached the girls, even though I’m not a sex worker, there was a connection. They knew that I wanted the best for everyone. I didn’t want to glorify them having to do sex work, but I also didn’t want it to be all sad. No one wants to hear that. Honestly, I’m trans and we get burnt out by the truth sometimes, and by those numbers and the statistics. We need a break from that mentally and so do people, so let’s just try a different route.
They were so comfortable being themselves. Who isn’t comfortable being themselves? I was like, “Girl, you can say whatever you wanna say. Talk to me like you’re talking to me, and that’s how we’re gonna talk to the world.” The culture understands the lingo. We don’t have to break down everything. Everyone knows what everything means. If they don’t, they can just Google it, right?
POV: Some of the most revealing moments in the film are when people check themselves, or break the wall by asking, “Can I say that?” They just open up.
DS: There’ve been templates of dialogue given to us and it just doesn’t feel free. It is going to be a sacrifice for us to switch up the angle. Everyone’s not gonna be happy with this, including some transwomen. These particular transwomen, they’re transwomen first, and they’re all talented and very beautiful, but they all had to do sex work at some point or are presently doing sex work. If you are a transwoman and you’ve never had to do sex work, like me, then you shouldn’t be offended by this film. The story of transgenderism in America, of Black transgenderism, has been told by the same girls with the gowns and the hair. I appreciate them, but there’s a language there. There’s something that people are not buying something and we have to talk about it.
But this movie is also very urgent. Black people are so scattered and so separate and unforgiving and so mad. We’re all traumatized from growing up not being coddled or not being emotionally supported as children. We don’t know how to handle when someone else is a little different from the next person.
POV: What was the process of casting the men? Were they reluctant to participate, especially when the conversation turns to fetishizing transwomen?
DS: I’m used to guys being that open and private. I think as transwomen, we all are. It’s fucked up because we’re constantly being ourselves and we have to take on so much and these men could just turn it on and off when they want to. They’re living so many lives publicly and honestly. They all volunteered to play their part that they played. I’ve known one of them for years and we never talked about anything like this. I think some guys are just tired of running.
POV: From working on this film, living it both like personally and professionally, how do you feel the industry is right now when it comes to transpeople, representation, and authentic storytelling?
DS: [Long pause] Authentic storytelling…just is at a low. It’s all b.s. Some of the most popular trans girls are still struggling and still doing sex work. They don’t want to leak that idea to people because they feel obligated to be the happy-go-lucky, “I got it together, bitch. I made it and I’m here.” Just because you go on the red carpet and tell the truth doesn’t mean that you are a party pooper. We cannot be helped if people think we’re fine because we look like goddesses all the time. Where’s the truth? The absolute truth, the true experience of Black transgenderism is absolutely not being represented. We’re still in this place where we wanna make people feel comfortable. No matter what, everyone wants to feel validated. I don’t care what anyone says. That’s part of being human.
I just hope this film will inspire people to start being more open and honest about the experiences that we take on as trans women. You don’t have to be a sex worker to have hard times as a trans woman. You could be the most passable, most successful woman. We’re all in the same boat. We’re all looking for a decent man or a woman or whatever we’re into—we just want love, you know? But on the bigger scale, we want our community to be recognized as part of the human community.