Out of the Celluloid Closet

Black Trans Sex Workers Shone Bright at Sundance

· Updated on October 4, 2023

It’s been an exciting year at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City as film lovers return in person for the first time in three years to enjoy all the festival has to offer. The especially energized audience was greeted by a historic slate of films, including many that center trans stories. It marked what is likely the most trans films ever programmed in a single year by the prestigious festival.

Shinning brightly among this festival lineup were two documentaries that focused on the experiences of Black trans sex workers. Both led by Black trans first-time filmmakers, KOKOMO CITY and The Stroll took different approaches to reframe the narrative around the trans sex workers community.

Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker’s The Stroll, which premiered yesterday, tells the untold story of New York City’s Meatpacking District through the people who knew it best: the majority Black, Trans sex workers who worked on 14th Street or “The Stroll”. Through their words, the audience is propelled into a deeply moving tribute to a complicated neighborhood, one that witnessed heartfelt community, city-sponsored abuse from police, and eventual gentrification.

2023 marked what is likely the most trans films ever programmed in a single year by the prestigious festival.

It wasn’t just the important history that stands out in the film: The Stroll is a testament to the power of trans-led, trans-focused documentaries. Lovell, one of two of the film’s trans directors, notably worked “The Stroll” herself doing sex work as a young, newly-out trans woman. This uniquely positions her to capture the love and beauty of the community she calls family.

Taking a differing but complementary approach to telling the stories of sex workers was filmmaker D. Smith’s KOKOMO CITY, which premiered at the festival last Saturday. The documentary is a no-holds-barred exploration of the current realities of Black Trans sex workers, as told through interviews with four incredible women who are currently working in New York City and Atlanta.

Related: Sundance Premiere The Stroll is Essential Trans Cinema

The rhythmic documentary expertly balances moments of humor and joy with poignant criticsm of Black cisgender community members who reject trans women. The film manages to do all this while mixing in a considerable amount of flirtatious musical sequences that one might expect from Smith, a Grammy-nominated music producer-turned-documentary filmmaker.

Both films take on biases and question systems, but also show how much love and joy there is within Black trans sex work communities. They achieve a level of empathy and connection that only Black trans filmmakers could capture.

When respectability politics, racism, and transphobia continue to sanitize and erase queer and trans stories, it remains thrilling to see these honest portraits of sex work in Black trans communities break through the noise, and, hopefully, the industry is taking notes.

The Stroll was picked up by HBO Documentary Films and KOKOMO CITY by Magnolia Pictures. Neither has a release date yet.♦

Hansen Bursic is a journalist and filmmaker with bylines in Documentary magazine, CinéSPEAK, and QBurgh. He also works as a Marketing Manager for Outfest, an queer media organization that runs the world’s largest LGBTQ+ film festival in Los Angeles.

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