Sundance 2023: ‘The Stroll’ and ‘Kokomo City’ Give Sex Workers a Voice
Hollywood values prestige when it comes to performances, sometimes enough to earn an actor an Oscar, there are some familiar stereotypes: a slave man, an unnamed “wife”, a criminal, a white protester. But it is rarely discussed that Shraddha actors are shown to play the role of sex workers.
Eartha Kitt in “Anna Lucasta”, Halle Berry in “Jungle Fever”, Xia Zhang in “Memoirs of a Geisha”, Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman”, Jodie Foster in “Taxi Driver”, Jon Voight in “Midnight Cowboy” Think about and River Phoenix in “My Own Private Idaho”.
A dizzying montage of clips from these performances in the 2021 documentary “Celluloid Bordello” outlines those accolades. In the film, streaming on Prime Video this month, director Juliana Picillo points to the fetishism, tyranny and exploitative stereotypes that often pop up in these screen narratives.
More importantly, she does this by turning her camera on actual sex workers, many of whom are gay, as they discuss their work and the ways equality is portrayed in Hollywood. And though many of these performances actually have merit, including Jane Fonda’s “Klute,” “Celluloid Bordello” makes you think about what exactly makes these roles work.
While there are certainly portrayals that depict agency or are more realistic — such as Dolly Parton in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and Maia Taylor in “Tangerine” — too often the characters are killed, drugged, or killed. Addiction or simply fantasy.
This pattern becomes even more complex when you consider the portrayal of queer sex workers and people of color. There is often an immediate sense that some trauma has driven them into this deed, that they are only doing it until they are rescued by a man, or that they generally lack morals of their own. Let’s keep
Rarely do they consider sex workers who do it because they want to and are good at it.
Every real-life sex worker interviewed in “Celluloid Bordello,” as well as sexuality and gender educators, tells a version of it, giving credence to the voices that are often left out of the conversation when the way we show up Let’s talk about on screen.
The restoration of sex workers in their own narratives is taken even further in “The Stroll” and “Kokomo City,” two new films premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this year.
Within the first few minutes of “The Stroll,” co-director and star Kristen Lovell, a Black, trans former sex worker, makes her intention clear: Once she’s been interviewed for a documentary, a condensed version of her , had gotten away with the edited version. story, and she was not pleased. “The Stroll,” her directorial debut with trans filmmaker Zachary Drucker, is definitely her chance to do right.
(It’s hard not to think about The Controversy That Persists Around Narrative Ownership in “Paris Is Burning” when Lovell vaguely mentions a prior film she was involved in).
It’s the perfect setup to tell a story that hasn’t been shared in a long time, or at least not shared in a way that clearly represents the people inside it. To be clear though, a very grounded style of filmmaking is immediately visible in “The Stroll”. Like “Celluloid Bordello,” this isn’t a film with a lot of artistic merit. But narratively speaking, it’s an eye-opener.
“The Stroll” tells the story of its eponymous strip in New York City’s Meatpacking District, which now attracts many white, upper-crust socialites and their families but was once home to many black, trans sex workers in the ’90s. decade.
Like many queer black people at the time, and still today, Lowell was fired from his job after the transition began. Facing rampant discrimination in the job market, she turned to sex work to make a living. Shortly before Stroll arrived, it was a neglected area of the city where sex workers could find work and formed a community of their own.
“The Stroll” tells the story of the region and the lives it lives again and again. It is a commemoration of what once was and what will never be again – and asks at what cost.
Lovell personally interviews the sex workers, as she does throughout the film, sharing what it was like to work there. While many Black trans people found friendship and community in the early years, they were also met with policing, brutality and insistent calls to remove them from the space, first from angry neighbors and then from Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Politicians were bent on “cleaning up” New York City, which meant displacing the many black, trans sex workers who had thrived in the Meatpacking District. “The Straw” details their painful eviction and the violence against them.
While Lowell and Drucker show compassion for the sex workers they interview, who talk about the need to be “superheroes” for daily survival and even prepare themselves if necessary. The director balances the story with the voices of former meatpackers and longtime residents. These also include an interview with a photographer who documented the area at the time.
It builds a whole story around the complexity of Stroll’s demise, showing some texture in the filmmaking. “The Stroll” is largely a recapitulation of the voices that came before, as well as a historical document of New York—specifically, the long and persistent fight for queer rights throughout the city and beyond.
The documentary does a lot, sometimes losing its focus, but it makes sense when you consider all the lives that were lost, the battles that were won, and a warm embrace among the sex workers. Doesn’t taste bitter. all this time.
The sex workers pulsating through “Kokomo City,” directed by Dee Smith, the Grammy-winning writer and producer of hits like Lil Wayne’s “Tha Carter III” album, have a different, wholeheartedly confirmed story. The filmmaker makes a strong debut with a documentary as disarming as its black-and-white cinematography.
And it follows a simple premise as four black, transgender, female sex workers in New York and Georgia, both inside and outside the black community, honestly, confidently and sometimes downright hilariously open up about themselves and the world around them. talking about.
In contrast to Lovell and Drucker’s mostly talking point approach, in “The Stroll”, Smith meets his subjects exactly where they are. Like in a bathtub, covered in bubbles with a bonnet over her head, or on her bed just shooting the breeze, or adjusting her top half in the mirror before going out for the night.
It puts each one in a place where they can really be in-between who they really are, while facing what you think they are directly. That means diving into their experiences at the intersection of being Black, trans, and a sex worker. No, they’re not trying to get your man, as one says. They don’t want your man either. This is a business transaction.
One describes her volatile relationship with her brother and the other talks about her family throwing her out of the house. But trauma and tragedy are not where “Kokomo City” sits. Instead, Smith is more interested in what’s troubling them today as they do their jobs and find healthy romantic relationships along the way.
For example, the way they feel compelled to face disdain within the black community, especially from some black women who ostracize them and accuse them of taking their men for granted.
in a bathtub scene with Daniella CarterIn what seems to stretch to about 20 minutes, she drops truth bombs about gender, sexual agency, and the cognitive dissonance of wanting a man who gets more pleasure from another woman than he gets paid for, and its blames him for that.
Another striking moment in the film finds two sex workers sitting at a table, one with dark brown skin and the other with light skin, talking about how they are treated differently in the world. They talk candidly about colorism, how trans identity is viewed, and how others often associate it with sexuality.
“Kokomo City” is one of those free-spirited, thought-provoking conversations that you don’t often see in film today in a society governed by ever-changing rules that can’t be said out loud, especially when it Belong to the black community. Smith dropped all that pretense.
Surprisingly, he had no plans to direct this film either. But after being turned down by five other directors, he took it up as his own. And it proved worthwhile, showing a lot of promise for a first-time filmmaker with one goal in mind: honesty.
In the press notes for “Kokomo City,” she writes, “I wanted to feel something molested.” “Something that resembles my real experience. Something that we can all find ourselves in. Something without all the rules and regulations that separate us as people of color. I wanted to tear down those walls.
“Kokomo City” may not be able to break down some of those walls, but it can at least start a conversation that should already be underway. And with it, hopefully, comes a move towards authenticity around sex workers on the big screen.