BFI Flare 2021

P.S. Burn This Letter Please review – essential portrait of 50s underground drag

This tender, tragic, and poignant documentary is an eye-opening chronicle of a largely forgotten part of American queer history

A rare collection of letters, addressed to one “Reno Martin,” serve as the basis of this complex and compelling documentary from filmmakers Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera. It blends archival footage with personal recollections to paint a vivid portrait of an American queer history largely buried and burned, pre-dating the Stonewall riots and the AIDS crisis: the underground drag scene of the 1950s.

Well aware of its standing as a unique and special film, P.S. Burn This Letter Please is unafraid to bask in the sheer privilege of finally having the means to tell these queer stories. “The best thing about history is to be able to go back in the past and discover yourself,” one interviewed historian states, though – as they go onto explain – the difficulty for those marginalised is that their pasts have historically been altered or destroyed altogether.

Former drag queens (or “female illusionists” as some prefer to be called) offer deeply moving accounts of living and working on the fringes of society, but also make a point to spotlight the positivity and joy of the gay scene – rewriting what little (and largely melancholy) history that has been preserved. Now in their eighties and nineties, they still retain the vivacity and acerbic acuity of their younger days.

Though ageing queens recount their stories from various states around the USA, New York City serves as the buzzing epicentre for these narratives, as Lower East Side bars and Harlem ballrooms facilitated work and play for these eccentric performers. Despite a significant focus on Harlem’s role in this portion of queer history, there are a notable absence of Black drag queens interviewed in the film – odd, considering how prevalent they were on the scene. A historian discusses the significance of the local ballrooms, emphasising their rarity as spaces where people of all races would mix in a “non-clandestine” way in the 1950s. Black queens are name-checked and seen in photographs and grainy footage, but personal testimonies might have enriched the narrative further.

P.S. Burn This Letter Please is poignant, tender, and ultimately tragic, the unavoidable shadow of death looming over the displays of snark and wit exuding from these first-hand accounts. Beautifully textured, it makes for absolutely essential viewing (especially at a time when drag is ingrained in the modern cultural zeitgeist), and serves as a stark reminder of the many queer histories yet to have their stories told.

P.S. Burn This Letter Please was screened as part of the BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival 2021. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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