Sundance 2023: ‘The Stroll’ and ‘Kokomo City’ give voice to sex workers

Sundance 2023: ‘The Stroll’ and ‘Kokomo City’ give voice to sex workers

When it comes to performances that Hollywood considers prestigious, sometimes enough for the actor to win an Oscar, there are some familiar stereotypes: a slave person, a nondescript “wife,” a criminal, a white savior. But the reverence shown to actors for playing sex workers is less often discussed.

Think Eartha Kitt in “Anna Lucasta,” Halle Berry in “Jungle Fever,” Ziyi Zhang in “Memoirs of a Geisha,” Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman,” Jodie Foster in “Taxi Driver,” Jon Voight in “Midnight Cowboy.” and River Phoenix in “My Own Private Idaho.”

A dizzying montage of clips from these performances in the 2021 documentary “Celluloid Bordello” underscores those accolades. In the film, streaming on Prime Video this month, director Juliana Piccillo points out the stereotypes of fetishization, victimization, and exploitation that all too often appear in these screen narratives.

Even more important, it does this by focusing its camera on real sex workers, many of whom are gay, as they discuss the ways their work and likenesses have been portrayed in Hollywood. And while many of these performances have merit, including Jane Fonda’s in “Klute,” “Celluloid Bordello” makes you wonder what exactly makes these roles tick.

The actors Sammy Davis Jr. and Eartha Kitt in a scene from the film
The actors Sammy Davis Jr. and Eartha Kitt in a scene from the movie “Anna Lucasta”, released in 1958.

Donaldson Collection via Getty Images

While there are certainly portrayals that represent the agency or are more realistic, like Dolly Parton in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and Mya Taylor in “Tangerine,” too often the characters are either murder, drug addicts, or pure fantasy. .

That pattern becomes even more complicated when you consider the portrayals of gay and colored sex workers. There is often an immediate realization that something traumatic has led them to this job, that they are only doing it until a man rescues them, or that they generally lack a morality of their own.

They rarely consider sex workers who do it because they want to and are good at it.

Each of the real-life sex workers, as well as sexuality and gender educators, interviewed on “Celluloid Bordello” tells a version of this, lending credence to voices that are so often left out of the conversation when we talk about the way we that are displayed. up on the screen.

This reincorporation of sex workers into their own narratives is taken even further in “The Stroll” and “Kokomo City,” two new films premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this year.

Kristen Lovell, co-director of
Kristen Lovell, co-director of “The Ride”

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute | Photo by Sara Falco

In the opening minutes of “The Stroll,” co-director and star Kristen Lovell, a former Black and trans sex worker, makes her intentions clear: She was once interviewed for a documentary that contained a condensed and edited version of her. story, and she was not pleased. “The Stroll,” her directorial debut with trans filmmaker Zackary Drucker, is her chance to course correct herself.

(It’s hard not to think about the controversy that persists around the narrative propriety in “Paris Is Burning” when Lovell vaguely mentions an earlier film he was in).

That’s the perfect setup for telling a story that hasn’t been shared for a long time, or at least not shared in a way that accurately represents the people within it, apparently. Although to be clear, there is a very basic style of filmmaking that is instantly apparent in “The Stroll”. Like “Celluloid Bordello”, it is not a film with much artistic merit. But narratively speaking, it’s a revelation.

“The Stroll” tells the story of its eponymous strip in New York City’s meatpacking district, now haunted by a host of white socialites and their families, but once the office. of many black trans sex workers in the ’90s

Two transgender sex workers stop to relax momentarily as they stroll through the meatpacking district in New York City in June 1999.
Two transgender sex workers stop to relax momentarily as they stroll through the meatpacking district in New York City in June 1999.

Lynsey Addario via Getty Images

Like many queer Black people at the time, and still today, Lovell was fired from her job once she began the transition. Facing rampant discrimination in the job market, she turned to sex work to earn a living. It wasn’t long before she came across Stroll, then a nearly abandoned area of ​​the city where sex workers could find work and had formed a community of their own.

“El Paseo” tells the story of this area and the lives that frequented it. It is a commemoration of what once was and what will never be again, and it asks at what cost.

Lovell personally interviews sex workers who, as he does throughout the film, share what it was like to work there. While many Black trans people found friendship and community in the early years, they also encountered increased policing, brutality, and persistent calls to get them out of the space, first from angry neighbors and then from Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

The politician was hell-bent on “cleaning up” New York City, which in part meant displacing the many black and trans sex workers who thrived in the meatpacking district. “The Stroll” details the painful removal of him and the violence against them.

A group of sex workers, including Sugarbear and Charisse, both at left, walk through the meatpacking district in New York City in September 1999.
A group of sex workers, including Sugarbear and Charisse, both at left, walk through the meatpacking district in New York City in September 1999.

Lynsey Addario via Getty Images

As Lovell and Drucker show compassion for the sex workers they interview, who talk about the need to be a “superhero” to survive on a daily basis and even arm yourself if necessary, the directors balance the story with the voices of former meatpackers and residents of lifetime. They also include an interview with a photographer who documented the area at the time.

This creates a fuller story about the complexity of Stroll’s disappearance, while also showing some texture to the making of the film. “The Stroll” is largely a reclamation of the voices that came before, as well as a historical document of New York, in particular, the long and persistent fight for queer rights across the city and beyond.

The documentary long ago, at times losing its focus, but it’s hard not to find its ending bittersweet when you consider all the lives lost, the battles won, and the sight of a warm embrace between sex workers who are still friends. all this time.

There’s a different and fully affirmed narrative among the sex workers that beats in “Kokomo City,” directed by D. Smith, the Grammy-winning writer and producer of hits like Lil Wayne’s “Tha Carter III” album. The filmmaker makes a strong debut with a documentary as captivating as its black-and-white cinematography.

Dominique Silver is one of several black and transgender sex workers interviewed in
Dominique Silver is one of several black and transgender sex workers interviewed on “Kokomo City.”

And it’s a premise as simple as four black, transgender, sex workers in New York and Georgia talking about themselves and the world around them, both inside and outside of the black community, honestly, confidently, and at times, downright hilarious. .

Unlike Lovell and Drucker’s mostly talking approach in “The Stroll,” Smith meets his subjects exactly where they are. Like in a bathtub, covered in bubbles with a cap on her head, or lying on her bed just blowing the breeze, or adjusting her half-blouse in the mirror before going out for the night.

It puts everyone in a place where they can really get into the ins and outs of who they really are, while directly confronting who they think they are. That means diving into their experiences at the intersection of being black, trans, and sex workers. No, they’re not trying to take your man, as they say. They don’t even want your man. It is a business transaction.

One describes her volatile relationship with her brother, and another talks about how her family practically threw her out of the house. But that space of trauma and tragedy is not where she settles “Kokomo City”. Rather, Smith seems more interested in what concerns them today as they go about their work and find healthy romantic relationships along the way.

Daniella Carter tells her truth in a scene from
Daniella Carter speaks her truth in a scene from “Kokomo City”.

For example, there’s the way they feel compelled to face scorn within the black community, particularly from some black women who ostracize them and accuse them of taking their men.

In the bathtub scene with daniella carterwhich seems to go on for about 20 minutes, drops truth bombs about gender, sexual agency, and the cognitive dissonance of wanting a man to find more pleasure in another woman, whom he pays, and blaming her for it.

Another shocking moment in the film finds two sex workers sitting at a table, one with dark brown skin and the other with fair skin, talking about how they are perceived differently in the world. They speak openly about colorism, what trans identity looks like, and how others too often link it to sexuality.

“Kokomo City” is one of those carefree and provocative conversations you don’t often see on film today in a society so governed by ever-changing rules about what can and can’t be said out loud, especially when speaking. It’s about the black community. Smith drops all that pretense.

Romantic couple Rich-Paris and XoTommy in a scene from
Romantic couple Rich-Paris and XoTommy in a scene from “Kokomo City”.

Surprisingly, she had no plans to even direct the film. But after five other directors turned it down, she took it as her own. And as it turned out, she paid off, showing great promise for a first-time filmmaker with one goal: honesty.

“I wanted to feel something not manipulated,” he writes in the “Kokomo City” press release. “Something that resembles my actual experience. Something where we can all meet. Something without all the rules and laws that separate us as people of color. I wanted to tear down those walls.”

While “Kokomo City” might not break through some of those walls, it could at least spark conversations that should have already been happening. And with that, hopefully, comes a step towards authenticity around sex workers on the big screen.

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