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Kokomo City movie review & film summary (2023)

“Kokomo City” is shot and cut by D. Smith, a Black, trans, Grammy-nominated producer who worked with Lil Wayne, Keri Hilson, and Katy Perry. Smith was ostracized by the music industry after coming out in 2014 and appeared on season five of “Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta,” a gig that she now regrets because of how she tried to stand out by (she says) somewhat caricaturing herself. She was also homeless for a while. This movie is a reclamation, a reinvention, and a return. It’s bursting with energy, it’s all over the place, and there are times when it sorta trips over its ambition. But it’s hard to pinpoint, in some faux-objective sense, what does or doesn’t “work” because it isn’t trying to satisfy any criteria but its own. The whole thing is uncoupled from mainstream/”normie” life and bourgeois concepts of propriety, much like the New York- and Atlanta-based people it depicts. 

The opening scene is an extemporaneous monologue about a sex worker taking a gun away from a client, intercut with hyperbolic recreations with an almost Pop Art goofiness (like slapstick comedy scenes in a Baz Luhrmann flick). The monologue is filmed handheld and zoomed-in from several feet away from the speaker, who is sometimes partly obscured by a doorframe. The framing makes the audience feel privileged access to insider knowledge has been granted. This feeling persists through a politically incendiary closing montage with full-frontal nudity, filmed and cut in a way that makes it feel like a 1990s MTV video that MTV would have never dared broadcast. There are partial dramatizations of the subjects’ experiences on the job (some of which feature graphic sex scenes with cartoonishly loud sound effects) and low-key, no-fuss hangout scenes where you get to see intimate moments of a more mundane sort (grooming in a bathroom mirror, canoodling on a couch). Smith uses wall-to-wall underscoring in some scenes, a la Spike Lee, lending gritty documentary material a touch of Old Hollywood grandiosity. 

These markedly different bits sit next to each other in a linear sequence, as in an anthology film comprised of short subjects. The movie is not interested in easing viewers out of one mode and into the next. The result feels not only justified but aesthetically right. The common element joining the subjects’ stories is a shared belief, rooted in experience, that most of the world ignores, exploits, or violently persecutes them (one section mourns trans women murdered by clients). So it makes sense that “Kokomo City” wouldn’t trouble itself with questions of appropriateness raised by anyone, even viewers from within the community who might object to how Smith puts certain body parts on display.

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