When it comes to performances that Hollywood considers prestige, sometimes enough to earn the actor an Oscar, there are a few familiar stereotypes: an enslaved person, a nondescript “wife”, a criminal, a white savior. But less discussed is that the Reverence actors play 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 of these performances in the 2021 documentary Celluloid Bordello underscores these accolades. In the film, which will air on Prime Video this month, director Juliana Piccillo points to the fetishization, victimization and exploitative stereotypes that appear all too often in these on-screen narratives.
More importantly, she does this by pointing her camera at real sex workers, many of whom are queer, as they discuss how their work and their likenesses have been portrayed in Hollywood. And while many of those performances do have merit, including Jane Fonda’s Klute, Celluloid Bordello makes you think about what exactly defines those roles.
While there are certainly portrayals that show agency or are more realistic — like Dolly Parton in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and Mya Taylor in “Tangerine,” far too often the characters are killed off, drug-addicted, or pure fantasy.
This pattern becomes even more complicated when considering the depictions of queer and black sex workers. Often it is immediately understood that something traumatic has brought them to this work, that they only do it until saved by a man, or that they generally lack their own morality.
Rarely do they consider the sex workers who do it because they want to and are good at it.
Each of the real-life sex workers and sexuality and gender educators interviewed in Celluloid Bordello says a version of this, giving credence to voices that are so often left out of the conversation when we talk about the way they show up at the top of the screen .
This reinstatement of sex workers into their own narratives is taken even further in The Stroll and Kokomo City, two new films premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Within the first few minutes of “The Stroll,” co-director and star Kristen Lovell, a black transgender former sex worker, makes her intentions clear: she was once interviewed for a documentary that ran with an abridged, edited version of her story, and she was not pleased. The Stroll, her directorial debut with transgender filmmaker Zackary Drucker, is her chance to change course.
(It’s hard not to think about it ongoing narrative ownership controversy in Paris Is Burning when Lovell vaguely mentions a previous film she was involved in).
It’s the perfect setup for telling a story that hasn’t been shared in a long time, or at least hasn’t been shared in a way that seems to accurately portray the people it contains. To be clear, a very down-to-earth style of filmmaking is immediately apparent in The Stroll. Like Celluloid Bordello, it’s not a film of much artistic merit. But story-wise, it’s an eye-opener.
The Stroll tells the story of his eponymous strip in New York City’s Meatpacking District, which today charms a crowd of white high-profile celebrities and their families, but was once the office of many black transgender sex workers. 90s
Like many queer black people then and now, Lovell was fired from her job just as she began the transition. Faced with widespread discrimination in the job market, she turned to sex work to earn a living. It wasn’t long before she came across The Stroll, then an almost neglected area of the city where sex workers found jobs and had started their own community.
The Stroll tells the story of this area and the people who visited it. It’s a commemoration of what once was and what will never be again – and asks at what cost.
Lovell personally interviews sex workers who, as she does throughout the film, share what it was like working there. While many black trans people found friendship and community in the early years, they also faced increased police work, brutality, and urgent calls to remove them from the space, first from angry neighbors and then Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
The politician was hell-bent on “cleaning up” New York City, which meant, in part, evicting the many black transgender sex workers who thrived in the Meatpacking District. “The Stroll” describes their painful removal and the violence against them.
While Lovell and Drucker show empathy for the sex workers they interview, who talk about being a “superhero” for day-to-day survival and even arming themselves if necessary, the directors balance the story with the voices of ex-meat packers and longtime residents. This also includes an interview with a photographer who documented the area at the time.
This creates a more complete story around the complexities of the walk’s demise while also showing some texture in the filmmaking. “The Stroll” is largely a revival of the voices that came before it, as well as a historical document of New York—specifically, the long and persistent struggle for queer rights across the city and beyond.
The documentary does a lot, sometimes losing its focus, but it’s hard not to find its ending bittersweet considering all the lives lost, battles won and the sight of a warm hug between sex workers who have remained friends the whole time.
Among the sex workers who thrive in Kokomo City, directed by D. Smith, the Grammy-winning actor and producer of hits like Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III album, there’s another fully-confirmed narrative. The filmmaker makes a strong debut with a documentary that’s as disarming as its black-and-white cinematography.
And it’s a premise as simple as four black transgender sex workers in New York and Georgia simply speaking about themselves and the world around them, both inside and outside the black community, honestly, confidently, and at times downright hilariously.
Unlike Lovell and Drucker’s most talkative approach in “The Stroll,” Smith picks up her subjects right where they are. Like in a bathtub, with a bubble cap on her head, or stretched out on her bed just to enjoy the breeze, or straightening her half-top in the mirror before a night out.
It puts everyone in a place where they can truly experience who they really are while going head-to-head with who you think they are. That means delving into her experiences at the intersection of black, trans and sex workers. No, they’re not trying to take your man, as they say. They don’t even want your husband. It’s a business transaction.
One describes her volatile relationship with her brother and another talks about how her family practically kicked her out of the house. But this place of trauma and tragedy is not where “Kokomo City” is located. Rather, Smith seems more interested in what troubles her about her work today and finding healthy romantic relationships in the process.
For example, they feel compelled to confront contempt within the black community, particularly from some black women who marginalize them and accuse them of taking their husbands.
In the bathtub scene with Daniela CarterWhich seems to stretch out to about 20 minutes, she drops truth bombs about gender, sexual agency, and the cognitive dissonance of wanting a man to find more pleasure in another woman he’s paying and blaming her for it.
Another striking moment in the film sees two sex workers seated at a table, one with dark brown skin and the other with light skin, and talking about how differently they are perceived in the world. They speak openly about colourism, how trans identity is viewed and how others too often associate it with sexuality.
“Kokomo City” is one of those free-wheeling, provocative conversations you don’t often see on film these days, in a society so dictated by ever-changing rules about what can and can’t be said out loud, especially when it comes to the black community goes. Smith gives up all that pretense.
Surprisingly, she didn’t even intend to direct the film. But after five other directors turned it down, she adopted it as her own. And it was worth it, as it showed promise for a first-time filmmaker with one goal: honesty.
“I wanted to feel something untouched,” she writes in the press release for “Kokomo City”. “Something that looks like my actual experience. Something we can all find ourselves in. 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 some of those walls, it might at least spark conversations that should have been happening already. And with that, hopefully, comes a step towards authenticity around sex workers on the big screen.