At its best, Sundance is really about Cinderella stories — the starving artists who come to Utah hoping to captivate audiences comprised of the industry and the public, effectively crashing the gates of Hollywood.
The most compelling pair of glass slippers at the festival this year belonged to D. Smith, whose directorial debut “Kokomo City” claimed two big awards in the Next section: the coveted audience award and Adobe’s Innovator prize. The film follows four Black trans sex workers in America and is unflinching in its depiction oft sex, identity politics and (gasp) levity.
“Kokomo City” is a rare entry in the queer nonfiction genre, in that it does not focus solely on the trauma of marginalized people (specifically Black trans women, who are murdered at alarming rates in this country). The film is so dynamic that the lone juror handing out awards in the Next section, Madeleine Olnek, called it “the funniest movie that has ever played Sundance.”
Following her big win, Smith told Variety she was grateful to see the response to her three-dimensional characters.
“In real life, trans women are funny. And we’re sad, and we’re sexy, and we have body parts that are our body parts. It’s time to embrace that. Enough with the fortresses that are built around us, keeping us from fully joining society,” she said.
More empowering than her impressive debut is what Smith endured to deliver it. She is a singer-songwriter and a Grammy-winning music producer for artists like Lil Wayne, Andre 3000 and Billy Porter. But following her transition, she couldn’t secure housing or employment, she revealed in her Sundance acceptance speech.
Smith said she “started to transition and lost everything” in the span of two years. “Having dear friends, close friends and strangers in New York to let me sleep at their house, it helped me a lot. I’m a true testament that if you believe in someone and you can help them, you should do it.”
In his review for Variety, chief critic Peter Debruge called the film “unforgettable,” applauding the ability of “Kokomo City” to “unpack why entrenched ideas of masculinity and gender roles make trans-ness so threatening.” The film revolves around Atlanta’s Koko Da Doll and Liyah Mitchell and New York’s Daniella Carter and Dominique Silver of New York. DeBruge said the film is “poised to enter the lexicon the way so much of ‘Paris Is Burning’ has done.”
“Kokomo City” premiered Jan. 21 at the Egyptian Theater. The same day, Magnolia Pictures announced it had acquired distribution rights to the project and Smith was signed by CAA..
“There is no way we’re going back,” Smith said when asked if Hollywood has finally reached the trans tipping point. “We are coming from behind a curtain that was never lifted for us. It’s showtime.”
Prior to “Kokomo City,” Smith blazed a trail as a cast member on VH1’s “Love & Hip Hop.” Her doc will next screen at the Berlin International Film Festival, prior to release. Harris Doran, Bill Butler and Smith produced. Hillman Grad’s Lena Waithe and Rishi Rajani served as executive producers, alongside Stacy Barthe and William Melillo.