Watch enough documentaries over time and they’ll all start to feel the same. That’s especially true in a season of churn-and-burn docs dropped every week on streaming platforms, usually about some horrific crime or some nostalgic brand or product. Snooze.
But if you’re wiling to seek them out, some truly thrilling, unique and enchanting documentaries are out there waiting to be seen, from last year’s Good Night Oppy and Fire of Love to deep political dives like the Oscar-winning Navalny. Directed by first-time filmmaker D. Smith, Kokomo City is one such find, a surprisingly energetic and optimistic chronicle of the experience of Black trans women, as told in their own words (and some very enlightening interviews with the men who love—or at least sleep with—them). Filmed entirely in black and white and with a confidence of framing and perspective not often seen in filmmaking debuts, Kokomo City at once celebrates trans joy in ways not typically seen in media while never shying away from the lived reality of women who face one of the the highest murder rates in the country.
In a tragic and all-too-common incident, featured subject Koko Da Doll was shot and killed in April of this year; she was just 35 years old. It’s a turn of events that makes the stark and honest conversations she and her contemporaries have on screen all the more meaningful, offering a glimpse into the daily lives of women who are relegated to the sidelines of society, people who aren’t seen as worthy of honest, public love but instead hidden in the shadows and treated as objects used for sex and shame. Smith seemingly turns on their camera and lets these women go, stepping aside to give them space to talk about—and through—anything that might come to their minds. Though they likely never will, all those worried about “grooming” and policing our public libraries would be well-served to watch Kokomo City and be reminded that those they seek to other are human beings, too.
Smith makes something creative of the film itself, too, adding a bit of whimsy to the otherwise colorless images on screen, with bright, chartreuse-colored text flashing up on screen both to identify who’s speaking and to bring life and animation to their words. These are all vibrant women, women who’ve been through hell and come out the other side to find their joy and purpose, and we get a sense of how lucky we are to hear their stories. As they and their partners, customers and friends speak, their words sometimes emphasized in script on screen, the universality of what they’re saying only becomes more apparent.
If documentaries are meant to do anything, it’s to open up a window into worlds, cultures, experiences or histories we may not otherwise know anything about—or at best, of which we only have a passing knowledge. Kokomo City is that welcome achievement that more than holds its own as a well-made addition to the genre and swings open the doors on a world well worth stepping into and celebrating.
Kokomo City opens in select theaters Friday, August 4.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!