“Kokomo City” / Publicity photo

“Kokomo City” Looks at Atlanta Black Trans Women, Including the Late Koko Da Doll

Decatur-based Liyah Mitchell and New Yorker Dominique Silver had never met “Kokomo City” director D. Smith before they made the film, but both were excited about the way she pitched the project. An acclaimed look at four Black transgender sex workers in New York and Atlanta, the documentary made a big splash at Sundance earlier this year.


Mitchell recalls that when Smith told her that the project would help out other transgender people in the world, she agreed to participate. It was a similar story for Silver.


“D. said it was going to be epic and monumental and talk to the Black community to speak about the struggle we have as Black trans women,” Silver said. “I thought it was a love letter to the community to put a face to the suffering we have endured as Black trans women.”


The experience working with Smith, who is well known for the reality series Love & Hip Hop Atlanta and for being the first trans woman to appear on a prime-time unscripted TV series, was one that made the project exciting.


“She is very chill and mellow and has a personality that you become comfortable with her,” Mitchell said. “That made the experience overall not as stressing. She told us to be ourselves and be authentic and that made it a more confident one.”


Silver immediately sensed Smith’s passion.


“Her passion for the film and the name she came with and what she represented gave me incentive to feel comfortable, to know that our story was not going to be misconstrued and would be delivered how we wanted it to be delivered,” Silver said. “For us by us, by a Black trans woman. It was refreshing to give us a platform and a voice and let us talk about issues we have been dealing with our whole lives.”


When the two first saw the film at Sundance, it was a life-changing moment.


“I actually cried, seeing myself on screen with everybody laughing,” Mitchell said. “It’s like you don’t want to look away for one moment. The film draws you in with its intensity.”


It’s been a pleasant surprise for the two seeing the audience reaction, with patrons wanting to meet them after and snap photos.


“It’s been a real surreal experience, seeing your story celebrated,” Silver said. “As Black trans women, we are not really celebrated so much in media in a positive light. It’s uplifting and makes me feel we did the right thing by sharing our stories and being vulnerable.”


Growing up, the two did not see much authentic representation of trans women. Mitchell’s initial time was the documentary, “Paris is Burning.”


“Just seeing [the characters] live their everyday normal life and maneuvering through society and showing the struggle of what it was like being trans back at the time in the ’80s and ’90s, that was the first for me,” she said.


Silver was also inspired by seeing the rise of Laverne Cox’s career and the performer’s success story.


“It is possible to be who you are and still be celebrated and put on mainstream TV shows and awards shows,” she said.


Earlier this spring, between local film festival appearances for the documentary, tragedy struck. The other Atlanta subject of the project, Rasheeda Williams, aka Koko Da Doll, was murdered on April 18. It was the third murder of a transgender woman in the city at the time and a stark reminder of the challenges these women face.


“Around the time the documentary was first filmed, that is when transgender murders were going crazy,” Mitchell said. “I remember that year it was at least 30 or 40. Each year gradually went down, but this year when Koko unfortunately passed, it shook all the sex worker girls in Atlanta. It brought back the unsafe feeling. Gun laws definitely need to be more prohibit[ive]. Now they are allowing anyone to walk around without a gun license. That is also one of the main issues and a part of the problem. There are so many people who have access to guns here.”


She feels “Kokomo City” is needed now, to show trans women in a more positive light and as humans and everyday people.


For Silver, the film destigmatizes sex work and personifies the trans experience.


“It shows the joys and struggles, the dichotomy between our families and this community and helps to educate and show some of the dark side these women have to face, but in a positive, beautiful and artistic way,” she said. “It will start conversations that are way behind due and maybe educate people to protect Black trans women because we are a marginalized community that has been under attack lately.”