When it comes to performances that Hollywood considers prestige, sometimes enough to earn the actor an Oscar, there are a few well-known stereotypes: an enslaved person, a nondescript “woman,” a criminal, a white savior. But less often discussed is the reverence actors get 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 staggering montage of clips from these performances in the 2021 documentary “Celluloid Bordello” underscores those accolades. In the film, streaming this month on Prime Video, director Juliana Piccillo points out the fetishization, victimization and exploitative stereotypes that all too often crop up in these film 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 likenesses have been portrayed in Hollywood. And while 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.
While there are certainly portraits that depict desk 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 murdered, drug addicted, or a straight-up fantasy.
That pattern becomes even more complicated when you look at images of queer sex workers and those of color. There is often an immediate sense that something traumatic has brought them to this work, that they are doing it alone until rescued by a man, or that they generally have no morality of their own.
They rarely take into account 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 so often left out of the conversation when we talk about the way they show on screen.
This restoration of sex workers into their own stories 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, trans ex-sex worker, makes her intent clear: She was once interviewed for a documentary that ended with an abbreviated, edited version of her story , and she was not happy. ‘The Stroll’, her directorial debut with transfilmer Zackary Drucker, is her chance to change course.
(It’s hard not to Controversy That Continues Around Narrative Ownership In “Paris Is Burning” when Lovell vaguely mentions a previous movie she was involved in).
That’s the perfect setup for telling a story that hasn’t been shared in a long time, or at least not shared in a way that apparently accurately represents the people in it. But to be clear, there is a very basic style of filmmaking that is immediately discernible in ‘The Stroll’. Like ‘Celluloid Bordello’, it is not a film with a great deal of artistic merit. But narratively, it’s an eye-opener.
“The Stroll” tells the story of the comic strip of the same name set in New York City’s meatpacking district, which now charms a slew of white, upper-crust socialites and their families, but was once the office for many black, transgender workers in the ’90s .
Like many queer black people at the time, and still today, Lovell was fired when she started transitioning. Faced with rampant discrimination in the job market, she turned to sex work to earn a living. It wasn’t long before she stumbled upon the Stroll, then an almost neglected part of town where sex workers had found work and formed a community of their own.
“The Stroll” tells the story of this area and the lives that 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, talk about what it was like to work there. While many black trans people found friendship and community in the early years, they also faced increased police crackdowns, brutality, and persistent 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 the many black, transgender workers who were thriving in the meatpacking district. “The Stroll” describes their painful removal and the violence against them.
While Lovell and Drucker express sympathy for the sex workers they interview, who talk about having to be a “superhero” to survive on a daily basis and even arm themselves if necessary, the directors balance the story with the voices of former meat packers and old residents. They also include an interview with a photographer who was documenting the area at the time.
This creates a fuller narrative around the complexities of the Stroll’s demise while showing some texture in the filmmaking. “The Stroll” is largely a reclamation of the votes that came before, as well as a historic document of New York – in particular, the long and persistent fight for gay rights in the city and beyond.
The documentary does a lot, loses focus at times, but the ending is hard bittersweet when you consider all the lives lost, the battles won and the sight of a warm embrace between sex workers who have remained friends all along.
There’s another fully corroborated story among sex workers pulsing through “Kokomo City,” directed by D. Smith, the Grammy-winning writer and producer of hits like Lil Wayne’s album “Tha Carter III.” The filmmaker makes a strong debut with a documentary that is as disarming as the black-and-white cinematography.
And it’s as simple as four black, transgender, female sex workers in New York and Georgia just talking about themselves and the world around them, both inside and outside the black community, honestly, confidently, and sometimes downright hilarious.
Unlike Lovell and Drucker’s mostly talking-head approach in “The Stroll,” Smith meets her subjects right where they are. Like in a bathtub covered in bubbles with a cap on her head, or sprawled on her bed in the wind, or adjusting her half top in the mirror for a night out.
It puts everyone 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 are not trying to take your husband, as someone says. They don’t even want your husband. It’s a business transaction.
One describes her volatile relationship with her brother and another tells how her family has virtually thrown her out of the house. But that space of trauma and tragedy is not where “Kokomo City” sits. Rather, Smith seems more interested in what’s on their minds today as they go about their jobs and establish healthy romantic relationships along the way.
For example, there’s the way they feel compelled to face the scorn from within the black community, particularly from some black women who ostracize them and accuse them of kidnapping their husbands.
In the bathtub scene with Daniella Carterwhich seems to last about 20 minutes, she drops truth bombs about gender, sexual agency, and the cognitive dissonance of wanting a man to take more pleasure from another woman, which he pays, and blaming her for it.
Another notable moment in the film features two sex workers sitting at a table, one with dark brown skin and the other with fair 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 connect it to sexuality.
“Kokomo City” is one of those free-running, provocative conversations not often seen in movies these days in a society so governed by ever-changing rules about what can and cannot be said out loud, especially when it comes to the black community. Smith lets go of all that pretense.
Surprisingly, she had no plans to even direct the movie. But after five other directors turned it down, she took it upon herself. And it turned out to be worth it, it held promise for a new filmmaker with one goal: honesty.
“I wanted to feel something that hasn’t been tampered with,” she writes in the press notes for “Kokomo City.” “Something similar to my actual experience. Something we can all relate to. Something without all the rules and laws that separate us as people of color. I wanted to tear down those walls.”
While “Kokomo City” may not break through some of those walls, it can at least spark conversations that should have already happened. And with that, hopefully, comes a step toward authenticity surrounding sex workers on the big screen.