Director's Cut: D. Smith On Her New Doc And Transphobia In The Black Community

Her documentary "Kokomo City" opens in select cities today.

In the realm of cinema, few voices are as unique and vital as that of D. Smith, a trailblazing Black transgender director whose storytelling is changing the narrative and challenging societal norms. Today, D Smith's debut film "Kokomo City," which takes us into the nuanced lives of transgender sex workers, opens in select cities. However, Smith’s own journey is fascinating; she got her start in the music industry and lost nearly everything when she began to transition. However, you can’t keep a good woman down. The documentary "Kokomo City” puts in place all of her skills as a visionary artist to deliver one of the most influential movies of 2023 thus far. 

In this week’s “Director’s Cut,” we explore the impact of D Smith's work, her determination to bring underrepresented stories to the forefront, and the significance of "Kokomo City" in reshaping our understanding of transgender lives and experiences.

BET: What was your vision of telling the story of the women in the documentary?

D. Smith: There were so many reasons I wanted to do this film, personal and social reasons – but the main thing was the ability to do whatever I wanted to do creatively. For years, I've been so stifled but also just really discouraged from being creative. I got out of that rut and that dark space. After thinking that maybe I can actually do something visually, I was drawn to these women's stories because, number one, they are never standing in front of a microphone; they never have the opportunity to be heard, seen, or protected. Specifically, transgender sex workers, they are literally the least protected, the least noticed, and I felt that way – even though I never had to take that route of survival. I definitely was connected with them by way of just feeling isolated, pushed out, and unprotected.

BET: You used the word stifled; why were you feeling stifled?

D. Smith: Well, in 2014, when I started to transition, all of my musical colleagues, connections, and artists that I was working with – they all just stopped communicating with me, like, literally soon as I started to transition. I also realize now, like years later, that it is really hard for Black people in general, especially in the music industry ten years ago, to have easily transitioned as well. I guess, I expected in a lot of ways my relationships in the business to stay intact no matter what. I guess that was part of my ego or just me being naive. I've made a lot of money for many artists and labels and thought my reputation or talent was enough. When I transitioned, it really just persecuted me and isolated me. I eventually went broke, lost my car, my home, and my personal recording studio. It really did a number on my mental, spiritual balance. So, once I was able to get back into the swing of things I really wanted to go full force with their stories.

BET: You were way ahead of your time. Do you think it's different now in the music industry?

D. Smith: It is absolutely different; it is a lot easier. I'm definitely not here to take the credit for that, but I added to the pavement of other people walking through the doors easier. I think that I took a lot of the bullets, a lot of the steam that was coming towards our community because I kind of naively just put myself in the dead center of all of that – transphobia homophobia. I automatically became a target for a lot of my community. So that's what happened; somebody has to be first – I'm grateful that I survived physically, that I'm still here, and that I was mentally able to heal. I'm still healing from a lot of things, from that trauma, childhood trauma, but also forgiving myself for being so hard on myself and forgiving myself for blaming people for not seeing my vision, not understanding my truth. As queer and trans people, you have to allow people that space to also transition. I was really young in the mind, totally inexperienced; I never grew up in the ballroom scene, I didn't have a gay mother, a gay father – I didn't experience any of that stuff. I had to learn a lot on my own, and I did learn very quickly that I didn't understand the transgender community. So me being put out there to represent a lot of them, it might not have been the smartest thing but I did it and I'm still here. [Laughs]

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

‘Kokomo City’ Movie Review: A Powerful Look Into The Lives Of Transgender Sex Workers

BET: The film is beautifully shot. Talk to me about some of your cinematic choices to tell the stories of these women.

D. Smith: Besides doing this film, I also wanted the opportunity to show who I am as a filmmaker. Regardless of how I identify or my background, at the end of the day, what was most important was – who am I as a filmmaker? What do I have to say, and how am I going to say it? I didn't want to do your quintessential documentary, either. I love documentaries, but very rarely do we see documentaries super stimulating or stylistically intentional. Even though the film is in black and white, there is so much color in the film because of the personalities. The subjects filled it with their stories and their vibrant personalities. It was always important for me to do something different, cutting edge, and cut through the noise.

BET: This film also tackles transphobia in the Black community. As I'm watching this film, I'm seeing a debate going on right now on social media between some Black cisgender women and some Black trans women. What can people learn from “'Kokomo City,” considering the climate that we're in right now?

D. Smith: I will tell you, this film has nothing to do with the social media arguments that are happening. I personally don't think that conversation should even be held on social media – that's half of the problem. But with this, I definitely see both sides, from Black women and trans women. There are both sides because we've all been hurt, we've all been pushed aside, we've all been discredited, and we've all been insulted and overlooked. The amount of healing we have to do as a community is jaw-dropping, sad, scary, and discouraging. If you really think of how deep our community is ripped apart from the root, you almost want just to throw your hands up, but I can't. We love each other. We love Black people, but at the same time, it's very draining when we have no idea, as a community, what are our priorities? What do we want? Why can't we protect? Why can't we respect? Why can't we listen? Why can't we teach and learn from each other?

I don't think that about who is female, who's trans, and who's got a period. I think it’s way deeper than that. I think we're just dying to just hear each other and to be heard from each other. Lastly, I will say this, we have to really understand that there are a lot of organizations, including LGBT organizations, that are in a place where they do nothing but pin us against one another. They encourage it by allowing certain people to speak on certain things… a lot of these organizations are not designed or created to keep us together. Every week there's a new rule, every week there's a new name, there's a new letter, there's always something to push us further away from our community as queer people. I think that is the most important thing we should be looking at -- how can we come together to even talk?

BET: We are all the directors of our own life. What is the director's cut of your life and journey thus far?

D. Smith: It’s definitely a happy ending. [Laughs] There will be some ups. There may even be downs because in my journey for me to see who I really am, I'm going to have to face all of my adversities – please believe me, I have a lot of them. But I've also tackled a lot of them over the years. I'm up for the journey. I'm up for the challenge. The Director's Cut of D. Smith is inspiring, raw, provocative, and it’s going to be intense, but it's going to be a happy ending.

“'Kokomo City” opens in select cities today.

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