New films premiering at this year's Sundance Film Festival reframe the narrative around sex workers in cinema and beyond.
When it comes to performances 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 often discussed is the reverence actors are shown 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 those accolades. In the film, streaming on Prime Video this month, director Juliana Piccillo points to the fetishization, victimization and exploitative stereotypes that too often pop up in these screen narratives.
Even more importantly, she does this by turning her camera on actual sex workers, many of whom are queer, as they discuss the ways their work and likenesses have been depicted in Hollywood. And though many of these performances do indeed 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 movie "Anna Lucasta" which was released in 1958.
While there are certainly portrayals that depict 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, drug-addicted or a straight-up fantasy.
That pattern is even further complicated when you consider portrayals of queer sex workers and those of color. There’s often an immediate understanding that something traumatic has brought them to this work, that they are only doing it until they are rescued by a man, or that they generally lack morality of their own.
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, as well as 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 on screen.
This reinstatement of sex workers in their own narratives is pushed even further in “The Stroll” and “Kokomo City,” two new films premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this year.
Kristen Lovell, co-director of "The Stroll"
Within the first few minutes of “The Stroll,” co-director and star Kristen Lovell, a Black, trans former sex worker, makes her intent clear: She was once interviewed for a documentary that ran off with a condensed, 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.
(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 in which she was involved).
That’s the perfect setup to tell a story that has long been unshared, or at least not shared in a way that accurately represented the people inside it, apparently. Though to be clear, there’s a very grassroots style of filmmaking instantly discernible in “The Stroll.” Like “Celluloid Bordello,” it’s not a movie with a whole lot of artistic merit. But narratively speaking, it’s an eye-opener.
“The Stroll” tells the story of its eponymous strip in the meatpacking district of New York City, which now charms a slew of white, upper-crust socialites and their families but was once the office for many Black, trans sex workers in the ’90s.
Two transgender sex workers stop to relax momentarily while strolling through the meatpacking district in New York City in June 1999.
Like many queer Black folks at the time, and still today, Lovell was fired from her job once she began transitioning. Facing rampant discrimination in the job market, she turned to sex work to make a living. It wasn’t long before she came upon the Stroll, then an all but neglected area of the city where sex workers could find work and had formed a community of their own.
“The Stroll” tells the story of this area and the lives that frequented 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, like she 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 were also met with increased policing, brutality and insistent calls to remove them from the space, first from angry neighbors and then from Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
The politician was hellbent on “cleaning up” New York City, which in part meant displacing the many Black, trans sex workers who thrived in the meatpacking district. “The Stroll” details their painful removal and the violence against them.
A group of sex workers, including Sugarbear and Charisse, both on the left, walk through the meatpacking district in New York City in September 1999.
While Lovell and Drucker show compassion for the sex workers they interview, who talk about needing to be a “superhero” for daily survival and even arming themselves if necessary, the directors balance the story with the voices of former meatpackers and longtime 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 Stroll’s demise, while showing some texture in the filmmaking. “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 throughout the city and beyond.
The documentary does a lot, sometimes losing its focus, but it’s hard not to find its ending bittersweet when you consider all the lives that were lost, the battles that were won, and the sight of a warm embrace between sex workers who have remained friends all this time.
There’s a different, wholly affirmed narrative among sex workers pulsing through “Kokomo City,” directed by D. Smith, the Grammy-nominated writer and producer of hits like Lil Wayne’s “Tha Carter III” album. The filmmaker makes a strong debut with a documentary as disarming as its black-and-white cinematography.
Dominique Silver is one of several Black, transgender sex workers interviewed in "Kokomo City."
And it’s as simple a premise as four Black, transgender, female sex workers in New York and Georgia just talking about themselves and the world around them, both inside and beyond the Black community, honestly, confidently and at times downright hilariously.
Unlike Lovell and Drucker’s mostly talking-heads approach in “The Stroll,” Smith meets her subjects exactly where they are. Like in a bathtub, covered in bubbles with a bonnet on her head, or sprawled out on her bed just shooting the breeze, or adjusting her half-top in the mirror before a night out.
It puts each one in a place where they can really get into the ins-and-outs of who they really are, while directly confronting who you 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 one says. They don’t even want your man. It’s a business transaction.
One describes her volatile relationship with her brother and another talks about her family virtually kicking her out of the house. But that space of trauma and tragedy isn’t where “Kokomo City” sits. Rather, Smith seems more interested in what troubles them today as they conduct their work and find healthy romantic relationships along the way.
Daniella Carter speaks her truth in a scene from "Kokomo City."
For instance, there’s the way they feel forced to confront disdain from 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 Carter, which seems to stretch for about 20 minutes, she drops truth bombs about gender, sexual agency and the cognitive dissonance of wanting a man who finds more pleasure from another woman, whom he pays, and blaming her for it.
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 perceived differently in the world. They speak openly about colorism, how trans identity is viewed, and how others too often tether it to sexuality.
“Kokomo City” is one of those freewheeling, provocative conversations that you don’t often see in film today in a society so governed by ever-shifting rules around what can and cannot be said aloud, especially when it pertains to the Black community. Smith abandons all of that pretense.
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 on as her own. And it proved worthwhile, showing a lot of promise for a first-time filmmaker with one goal: honesty.
“I wanted to feel something untampered with,” she writes in the press notes for “Kokomo City.” “Something that looks like my actual experience. Something that we can all find ourselves in. Something without all the rules and laws that separate us as people of color. I wanted those walls down.”
While “Kokomo City” might not break through some of those walls, it might at least spark conversations that should have already been going on. And with that, hopefully, comes a step toward authenticity around sex workers on the big screen.