With the release of her first film, D. Smith officially became an award-winning filmmaker: When Kokomo City premiered at Sundance earlier this year, it won the NEXT Audience Award and NEXT Innovator Award. (It would go on to win prizes at film festivals from Milwaukee to Berlin.) However, becoming a filmmaker at all was a leap of faith for Smith after 15 years in the music industry.
"I've always been multitalented. I've always been really creative. I never, ever wanted a nine-to-five. I was terrified of that," she says. Even while working in music, "I always visualized the visuals. Not necessarily even for my songs, but I've always been like, 'Damn, they should do this. That would be dope if they did that in this video.' It's always been there."
After producing for the likes of Katy Perry, Kendrick Lamar and Lil Wayne, Smith's choice to pivot her career behind the camera was made out of necessity, after the same industry that had recognized her with two Grammy nominations shut its doors to her when she came out as a trans woman. Not one to be deterred, Smith entered the film industry by doubling down on her identity.
Kokomo City follows the lives of four Black transgender sex workers, with Smith directing, producing, editing and shooting the documentary herself. "I saw it as clear as day," Smith reflects. "I saw it. I wanted it so bad. All I needed to do was get my hands on the camera, and that's exactly what happened."
"It's really important that I take the stories that people talk about all the time and put my twist on it," she says of her approach to filmmaking. "I think that's going to be my magic. As a creator, you just want people to be stimulated, and I want to stimulate people and continue to tell stories of normal people and make them expose their extraordinary abilities."
Below, Smith shares with A.frame the five films that most inspire her as a filmmaker.
Directed by: Steven Spielberg | Written by: Menno Meyjes
The Color Purple just blew me away. Quincy Jones scored the film, which was incredibly smart. Quincy Jones pretty much made Michael [Jackson] an international superstar. But the music and the visuals and the nuances of The Color Purple were so groundbreaking in how Steven Spielberg shot it. I mean, you had Gone With the Wind back in the day, but this is way different. This was so gutsy and beautiful to look at, disturbing in its history but nonetheless beautiful to watch.
Written and Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
I love Kill Bill. Kill Bill is one of my favorite films. I am obsessed with Tarantino. What is there to say? Pulp Fiction is another Tarantino film I like. It's the grittiness and the coolness about it, and the simplicity of how some of the shots look like stills. If you screenshot a scene, they're just, like, really cool posters. I wanted the visuals in Kokomo City to be the same way. Like, I really wanted there to be a lot of screenshot moments that could look like posters. That was very important to me.
Written and Directed by: Spike Lee
I love Spike Lee's shooting technique and how pro-Black he is. I think my style is somewhere between Tarantino and Spike Lee. If they were to do a documentary — like if I asked them to shoot a movie about trans women together — that's what I wanted to do.
Directed by: Lee Daniels | Written by: Geoffrey Fletcher
Precious was another groundbreaking film. It was a big girl that was the lead, and she wasn't necessarily the type they put on magazine covers. But she was this deep character that had all of these emotions. It was just riveting, absolutely stunning to look at. I just loved it. I loved it.
Directed by: Michael Schultz | Written by: Eric Monte
I love films from back in the day like Lean On Me or Cooley High. It's gritty now because it was done so long ago, and I liked that grit. That's why I shot Kokomo City in black and white. I f**king love it. It just added to the sexiness. In Cooley High, the grit was also how they didn't hold back the Blackness. They had some really classic music in there. In my film, I wanted it to really be captivatingly, audibly and visually. That was a really fun and fulfilling thing for me to do.