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Sundance Film Festival Review: Black Trans Lives Matter in ‘The Stroll’ and ‘Kokomo City’

Trans representation in the media has been slowly but surely improving over the years, most notably in the success of TV’s Pose. At this year’s Sundance, a pair of enlightening films showcase the next step in this push towards authenticity. Focusing on the lives of Black trans sex workers, The Stroll and Kokomo City tell their experiences in documentaries directed by trans women.

The Stroll refers to the area surrounding 14th Street in New York’s Meatpacking District, where Kristen Lovell (the film’s co-director with Zackary Drucker) formerly made her living alongside other trans sex workers. With few options for employment and rampant homelessness, these women congregated at The Stroll, which became a focal point for their community. Decades later, The Stroll is no more, having been replaced by upscale businesses and accommodations after a targeted process of gentrification. Through this insightful documentary, Lovell and Drucker seek to remind audiences of the hidden history of this place that was “cleaned up” to make way for a more conservative vision of New York. The result is a powerful reclamation of the humanity underlying an essential piece of the city that was frowned upon as the domain of “S&M bars, meatpackers and hookers.”

Early in the film, an interviewee proclaims that despite the challenges and dangers of The Stroll, she felt safer in the streets than in her intolerant household. And it is this love-hate relationship that informs the filmmaking and tone. Indeed, as Lovell and her subjects fondly recall the sense of community, it counters the usual pity that is directed towards trans sex workers. As Lovell interviews an array of former sex workers, her kinship with her subjects allows for a noticeably relaxed atmosphere, leading to candid and often humorous conservations that feel like everyday living room talk.

While these women reflect on the affirming attributes of The Stroll and its protective Stroll mothers, they also acknowledge the unsettling possibilities of assault, rape and even murder that threaten their lives. Indeed, in one scene they frankly state that most of their community are no longer alive. However, it’s the antagonistic wider politics of the evolving city that seem to strike the biggest blow, evidenced in the film’s impressive exploration of the pivotal flashpoints in gay and trans rights in New York City over the years.

“The Stroll” thus acts as a testament to the resilience of New York’s transgender community, harkening back to the Stonewall period, through to the subsequent struggles epitomized in then-mayor Rudy Giuliani’s biased crimefighting policies. And in the film’s shrewdest move, it also calls out the neglectful respectability politics employed by cis members of the gay community and condescending media portrayals from a particular trans woman of higher social class.

Expressed through evocative photos, gritty archival videos and honest interviews, The Stroll ultimately paints a comprehensive picture of the changing landscape and culture of the Meatpacking District. For its trans residents, it shows cause for hope, far removed from the derogatory “he-she” and “transvestite” headlines of yesteryear. Of course, there is still a long way to go. But informative films like “The Stroll” serve as an essential component of that journey towards true progress and equality.

SCORE: ★★★

Rich-Paris and XoTommy appear in KOKOMO CITY by D. Smith, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. | Photo by D. Smith.

The Stroll is also mentioned Kokomo City, another illuminating Sundance entry from director D. Smith. Captured in striking black and white digital cinematography, this documentary dives into the more intimate details of those sexual encounters. Told from the experiences of trans sex workers, Kokomo City is an uncensored – and often deliberately raunchy – exposé of the complex relationship between Black cishet men and the trans women they love and hate in equal measure.

The pervasive homophobia within the Black community is well known by anyone even casually familiar with Black people. And for transgender women, it is especially violent, with many cis men viewing transgender identities as an offense to their own masculinity. But in the same breath, the feminine gender expression of these trans women appeals to these men’s innate sexual urges. As revealed in Kokomo City, this sometimes results in transactional sexual encounters and even romantic relationships. By introducing us to 4 sex workers who have experienced these dynamics, Kokomo City keeps it real and tells it like it is.

Kokomo City starts with bang, thanks to a cold open that feels snatched from a screwball sex comedy. In it, one of the film’s subjects describes in colorful detail, an encounter where a tussle with a client over a gun ends amicably with sex. As it’s revealed that this client is a rapper, it recalls the viral clip in which Laverne Cox and Angelica Ross suggestively hint at the prevalence of transgender-loving men in hip hop.

Indeed, much of Kokomo City feels like an elaboration on that discussion, using playful reenactments to poke fun at some of the absurdities surrounding Black masculinity and “down-low” lifestyles. And each successive interviewee is equally candid and astute, openly discussing taboo topics and including a few tips of the trade for good measure. Meanwhile, the documentary also benefits from the rare perspectives of urban Black men who speak out in support of these trans women and proudly confess their sexual desire for them.

Like the trans sex workers in The Stroll, however, these women never shy away from cautioning the dangers and vulnerability of sex work. Notably, they acknowledge that even the most respectful encounters are tinged with exploitative dynamics. As such, it makes a speech that proclaims “trans women have so much potential” all the more resonant. And through the wisdom and passion on display from Kokomo City’s brutally honest stars, this fact is powerfully self-evident.

SCORE: ★★★


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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for, and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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