In 2014, D. Smith was at the top of the game. After more than 15 years working as a music producer, she'd earned two Grammy nominations — including Album for the Year for Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III — and produced songs for artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Katy Perry, and Andre 3000. But when Smith came out as trans, she was blackballed from the same industry that once celebrated her vision.

Unable to find work, Smith found herself broke, homeless, and considering survival sex work. ("I’ve never had to do sex work, but I have a great deal of empathy and respect for the woman that does," she's said.) It was this period of struggle that inspired her directorial debut, Kokomo City, an exhilarating and humanizing portrait of four Black transgender woman — Daniella Carter, Liyah Mitchell, Dominique Silver and the late Koko Da Doll —navigating their identities as Black women, trans women, and sex workers.

"At the end of the day, these are representations of people in our community — the human community," Smith says. "These are complex, beautiful, intelligent women that have been, in so many ways, shunned and discredited."

Like the films of the Blaxploitation era, Smith's limited resources only spurred her ingenuity in directing and producing the documentary herself, as well as shooting it and editing the final film using a copy of iMovie. The result — a 73-minute confessional presented via stylish black-and-white imagery — premiered during this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it won the NEXT Innovator Award and the Audience Award.

"I just wanted to make a documentary that I would personally want to watch," says Smith. "That was the key for me. Like, what I want to watch? Even in the editing, I took out things that would probably distract people or take them out or things that weren't urgent enough."

A.frame: I imagine it must have been difficult to start from the beginning again, but here you are. What was it like transitioning from the work that you were doing within the music industry to a new medium in filmmaking?

The journey took some time. It really did. I had a lot of healing to do, as well. I was very guarded and defensive, and I wanted not to be dependent on people. I've always been really independent, and it was very— I don't know. It was just very sad. But I've always been multitalented. I've always been really creative, and I've been drawn to anything creative. I never, ever wanted a nine to five — not ever. I was terrified of that. And I know that my gift, my true alignment was to be creative. But being creative, you have to really know what you're doing and have a strong sense of duality. Because you have to support yourself depending on your God-given talent and hope that someone is interested in it. So, wakening up with the idea of shooting a documentary was the re-jolt I needed. I saw it as clear as day. That was the key. I saw it. And I wanted it so bad. All I needed to do was get my hands on the camera, and that's exactly what happened.

How did you get in touch with these four women? And then when was it like inviting them to be a part of this project and to be so vulnerable in front of the camera?

I had to be vulnerable. I had to come to them humble and vulnerable and transparent, to tell them what my intentions were with this film, and also to explain the process that I saw in my head to get this film done. It caught them off guard, I think. It felt fresh. It felt liberating. And I think the possibilities of creating something like this was really curious to them. That was the seed of creating Kokomo City — being truthful and transparent with each other.

We see both the love and the violence that these Black trans women experience, often coming from the same place — from the men that love them but also hurt them. How did you want to empower the voices of folks who were speaking to you in front of the camera?

At the end of the day, these are representations of people in our community — the human community. There's not just one type of human. These are complex, beautiful, intelligent women that have been, in so many ways, shunned and discredited in our society, in this country, and all around the world. I think there's more tension, because there's more growth. There's more scrutiny, because there's more power. One thing I've learned watching my boyfriend play video games, when you run into a cluster of villains, you know you're going the right way. You know you're heading in the right direction. That's how I feel about trans women. It's very important that they represent the humaneness of being transgender.

You do a really wonderful job pivoting between tones in this film through visuals. One moment we're laughing with the women and the next they're sharing a very grim story about a life-and-death situation they endured. How did you create that cohesion through the editing process?

That's just my swag. I wanted something really swaggy, super sexy, provocative, and contemporary. And because we're telling a story of trans women, which is always like this taboo, kind of traumatic thing, I wanted to do something that felt new and felt relevant. I wanted to do something that was just badass. It was very important that I portrayed these girls as empowered and rock stars and really highlighted their comfortability in their sexuality. That was very important.

What kept you motivated throughout filming, despite the challenges and barriers you faced?

I was in full complete and unadulterated fight or flight mode. It was do or die. And the entire time, I was like, "I can do this." Top to bottom, I was excited to just get this done to share with the world — or share with anyone, to be honest with you. So, the process of creating this film was really empowering. Every time I shot a frame, I was given more power, I was given more security and more confidence. That was just really gratifying.

Dominique Silver, director D. Smith, Daniella Carter and Koko Da Doll at Sundance.

The film has screened at many different film festivals, including Sundance. What has the reception felt like? And what reactions have you been most moved by?

Amazing. Sundance was literally a life-changing experience. I wish I had better words than that, but it's simple as that — it changed my life. It changed my life, by way of just knowing I could do even more than what I've done. It let me know that I could go as far as I want to go. Knowing that I edited this film with iMovie and it is playing in theaters is quite gratifying. I had very limited resources and to know that people appreciate it — the rawest form of my talent — was very validating. We got a standing ovation on opening night at Sundance. The theater was completely packed and everyone was on their feet. We had a screening at Outfest in L.A. and another standing ovation, and another one in Germany. But I think the most memorable one is when a Black woman that was five months pregnant came to me after the screening and said, "This film taught me how to love my unborn child differently."

How have you reconciled the complex emotions of grieving Koko Da Doll [née Rasheeda Williams, who was murdered in Atlanta in April] as you're also celebrating this film and celebrating her role in it?

Wow. There is a real emotional dichotomy there. I've watched the film well twice since she's passed, and last night was a tough one. It hit a lot of us when it got to some of her parts. There's one part in the middle that pisses me off, because I cry. She's talking, and then right after, the next scene is something really hilarious. I'm crying, but it's like this weird, psychotic laugh-cry. But that's Kokomo City. You have to roll with the punches. And she was such an important part of this film, in terms of how transparent and truthful and vulnerable and honest she was. I'm very proud that I was able to film her and meet her before we lost her, and show how beautiful and transparent and vulnerable trans women could be.

Now that you've had the success of this film, what types of films are you looking to make in the future?

I'm already working on a new project. The phone has not stopped ringing, and my team and I have been very thorough about getting back to people. I do have a couple ideas. I think it's really important that I take the stories that people talk about all the time and put my twist on it — I think that's going to be my magic — and blow people away. I want to do that. I want to blow people away with like, 'Damn, why didn't I think of that?!' Or, 'I can't believe that was right underneath our noses!' But as a creator, you just want people to be stimulated. I want to stimulate people and continue to tell stories of normal people and make them expose their extraordinary abilities.

I am working on a new documentary and it is going to be a smash. It's gonna be really, really good. It's not an LGBT film, but it's definitely about telling great stories in the culture. And I have a groundbreaking narrative, scripted project. It's the only thing that's keeping me up at night. I'm telling you, I can't wait for that to happen. So, I'm working. I'm already starting my next journey.

By Jireh Deng


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