BFI FLARE REVIEW: ‘PS: Burn This Letter Please’ (2021) Rediscovers New York’s 50s Drag Pioneers

When queer historians and filmmakers dive into historical archives, they are confronted with swathes of silence. Whether dissimulating their illicit feelings behind cryptic language or getting rid of incriminatory epistolary evidence altogether, gay lovers had to be prudent. Whatever explicit traces survived were then destroyed by ashamed families; and oppressive regimes, in their turn, made bonfires out of the literature and images that celebrated nonconformity. PS: Burn This Letter Please’s voice-over opening lines grimly remind us that queer historical voices are often only retrievable from dehumanising police reports and newspaper accounts of raids and arrests. It is through records of violence and the ashes of stories forever lost that the rainbow of queer history bursts.

The circumstances behind the inception of Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera’s documentary are an anecdote of exception. It all began in an abandoned Los Angeles storage unity in 2014, where producers Craig Olsen and Richard Konigsberg found a box of letters from the 50s and 60s written by gay men and trans women from New York City. They were addressed to a certain Reno Martin, a radio host that moved out of NYC for a job, leaving behind a network of drag queen friends around which the film revolves. Resulting from a herculean five-year journey to map out their entangled lives, PS: Burn This Letter Please features moving interviews with the people who had penned the letters and those mentioned in them, all in their 80s and 90s now, alongside new authentic archive footage from their time as performers.

Though some still work and live in New York, most interviewees speak to the camera from their homes in quiet towns across the United States. Their recollections tell us of an underground scene full of fearlessness and budget glamour, where men donning lamé costumes and pancaked faces of makeup was a cause for getting arrested and facing public humiliation. Seligman and Tiexiera pertinently contextualise these conversations and the photographic records that flash on the screen with commentary from historians on the struggles of being queer in pre-Stonewall US. The consistent reminders of the illegality of the queens’ actions ground the film in the genre of historical documentary, but what most successfully comes through is the fierceness and bravery of these queens whose camp joie de vivre remains unscathed 60 years later.

A woman wearing a skin-coloured leotard with gold trimmings holds the severed head of a man in her hands. She is laid down and is surrounded by jewelry and looks as if she will kiss the head.
Image courtesy of BFI Flare

The film goes beyond the chronological scope of the letters, providing measured glimpses of New York’s queer history. We are shown astounding footage of drag balls, gay pageants, and parties in Harlem Renaissance, where segregation and heteronormativity were being challenged since the 1920s. The most poignant scenes arrive with the 80s and the AIDS epidemic: homophobia, poverty, and invisibility left huge scars in the gay scene, and the impact on the lives of the interviewed performers is gradually revealed. Tears promptly fall on hearing of dead lovers and the trauma endured by the queens and their loved ones.

It is the queens’ charisma that drives the film and unites the immense breadth of content the directors tackle. Josephine, Claudia, and Daphne stand out as the star trio. Film footage and photographs of their performances are the catalyst for talks about the fascinating behind the scenes of drag: dress and wig making, talks about “passibility” and deceit, and the intricacies of networking (including connections with the mafia). Claudia provides comic relief when recalling an episode when she and Josephine broke into the Metropolitan Opera and stole 35 wigs to then sell on. Wait to hear revelation of the story’s true outcome.

Though the stunning imagery could have profited from more consistent montage and a more suiting score, the film is worth watching for the archive footage alone, making Seligman and Tiexiera’s feature a wonderful addition to the domain of queer storytelling and documentary cinema. The stories they salvaged remain resonant. We still struggle to fight invisibility and discrimination from families and institutions, and the escape to the metropole is still formative of many queer people’s lives. As drag artists leave the underground to become global superstars, it feels like the tide is beginning to turn and such comments begin to sound, indeed, like history. But the documentary’s message is clear: continue to be your fabulously queer self, but never forget that the strength of our community lies in the resolve to continue carrying the torch of memory.

Dir: Michael Seligman, Jennifer Tiexiera

Prod: Michael Seligman, Jennifer Tiexiera, Craig Olsen

Header image courtesy of BFI Flare