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

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

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 these accolades. In the film, streaming on Prime Video this month, director Juliana Piccillo points out the fetishization, victimization and exploitative stereotypes that often appear in these screen narratives.

Even more importantly, she does this by turning her camera on real sex workers, many of whom are queer, as they discuss how their work and likenesses have been portrayed in Hollywood. And while many of these performances do have merit, including Jane Fonda’s in “Klute,” “Celluloid Bordello” makes you think about what exactly makes these roles work.

Actors Sammy Davis Jr.  and Eartha Kitt in a scene from the film "Anna Lucasta" which was released in 1958.
Actors Sammy Davis Jr. and Eartha Kitt in a scene from the movie “Anna Lucasta” which was released in 1958.

Donaldson Collection via Getty Images

While there are portrayals that represent agency or are more realistic, such as Dolly Parton in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and Mya Taylor in “Tangerine,” all too often the characters are murdered, drugged, or a fantasy direct . .

This pattern is further complicated when representations of queer sex workers and sex workers of color are considered. There is often an immediate understanding that something traumatic has led them to this work, that they only do it until they are rescued by a man, or that they generally have no morality of their own.

Sex workers who do it because they want to and are good at it are rarely considered.

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

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

Kristen Lovell, co-director of "The Walk"
Kristen Lovell, co-director of “The Stroll”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Sara Falco’s photo

In the first few minutes of “The Stroll,” co-director and star Kristen Lovell, a former black trans sex worker, makes her point clear: She was once interviewed for a documentary that came out with a condensed and edited version of she . story, and she wasn’t happy. “The Stroll,” his directorial debut with trans filmmaker Zackary Drucker, is his chance to course-correct.

(It’s hard not to think about it Controversy lingers over narrative ownership in ‘Paris is Burning’ when Lovell vaguely mentions an earlier film in which he was involved).

This is the perfect setup to tell a story that hasn’t been shared in a while, or at least hasn’t been shared in a way that accurately represents the people inside it, apparently. To be clear, there is a very popular style of filmmaking that is instantly discernible in “The Stroll.” Like “Celluloid Bordello,” it’s not a film with much artistic merit. But narratively speaking, it’s a revelation.

“The Stroll” tells the story of its namesake strip in New York City’s Meatpacking District, which now charms a slew of white, upper-class socialites and their families, but was once the office of many black and trans sex workers in the 1990s.

Two transgender sex workers stop for a moment's rest while walking through New York City's meatpacking district in June 1999.
Two transgender sex workers stop for a moment’s rest while walking through New York City’s meatpacking district in June 1999.

Lynsey Addario via Getty Images

Like many black queers at the time, and still today, Lovell was fired from his job once he began transitioning. Faced with rampant discrimination in the labor market, she turned to sex work to make a living. It wasn’t long before she reached the Passeig, then an almost abandoned area of ​​the city where sex workers could find work and had formed a community of their own.

“El Passeig” tells the history of this area and the lives that frequented it. It is a commemoration of what once was and what will never be again, and one wonders 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 an increase in police brutality and insistent calls to remove them from the space, first from angry neighbors and then from Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

The politician was determined to “clean up” New York City, which in part meant displacing many black and trans sex workers who thrived in the meat district. “The Stroll” details their painful removal and the violence against them.

A group of sex workers, including Sugarbear and Charisse, both left, tour New York City's meatpacking district in September 1999.
A group of sex workers, including Sugarbear and Charisse, both left, tour New York City’s meatpacking district in September 1999.

Lynsey Addario via Getty Images

While Lovell and Drucker show compassion for the sex workers they interview, who talk about the need to be a “superhero” for daily survival and even arm themselves if necessary, the directors balance the story with the voices of elders meat packers and long time residents. They also include an interview with a photographer who documented the area at the time.

This creates a fuller story around the complexity of the Promenade’s disappearance, while also showing some texture in the filmmaking. “The Stroll” is largely a recovery of earlier voices, as well as a historical document of New York, in particular, the long and persistent struggle for queer rights throughout the city and beyond.

The documentary does a lot, sometimes loses its focus, but it’s hard not to find its bittersweet ending when you consider all the lives that were lost, the battles that were won and the sight of a warm embrace between the female workers of the sex that have remained friends. . all this time

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

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

And it’s such a simple premise that four black, transgender, New York and Georgia sex workers just talk about themselves and the world around them, both inside and outside the black community, with honesty, confidence, and sometimes downright hilarious

Unlike the mostly talkative approach of Lovell and Drucker in “The Stroll,” Smith knows his subjects exactly where they are. Like in a bath, covered in bubbles with a cap on your head, or lying in bed just shooting the breeze, or adjusting your top half in the mirror before going out for the night.

It puts each one in a place where they can really get into the details of who they really are, while also directly confronting who you think they are. This means diving into their experiences at the intersection of being black, trans, and sex workers. No, they’re not trying to get your man, as one says. They don’t even want your man. It is a commercial transaction.

One describes her volatile relationship with her brother and another talks about her family practically kicking her out of the house. But this space of trauma and tragedy is not where “Kokomo City” is located. 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 speaks her truth in a scene from "City of Kokomo."
Daniella Carter speaks her truth in a scene from “Kokomo City.”

For example, there’s the way they feel forced to deal with scorn from the black community, especially some black women who ostracize them and accuse them of taking their men.

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

Another striking moment in the film is two sex workers sitting at a table, one with dark brown skin and the other with light skin, talking about how they are perceived differently in the world. They talk openly about colorism, how trans identity is viewed, and how others too often tie it to sexuality.

“Kokomo City” is one of those provocative conversations you don’t often see in movies today in a society so governed by ever-changing rules about what can and can’t be said out loud, especially when refers to the black community. Smith abandons all this pretense.

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

Surprisingly, he had no plans to even direct the film. But after five other directors turned it down, she took it on as her headquarters. And it paid off, showing plenty of promise for a budding filmmaker with one goal: honesty.

“I wanted to feel something unmanipulated,” he writes in the press notes for “Kokomo City.” “Something that feels like my real experience. Something we can all relate to. Something without all the rules and laws that separate us as people of color. I wanted those walls to come down.”

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

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