Jennifer Tiexiera and Michael Seligman’s P.S. Burn This Letter Please is an astounding documentary that captures its audience early and never let’s go. Full of important stories and experiences, this is an essential watch.
Drags, fags and trans-women were attracted to the Big Apple because they could find work as impersonators in a small number of Lower East Side clubs. Decades before Stonewall, they occupied the margins of society, determined to live as they pleased, despite the police’s increasing attention. Sometimes reduced to stealing to get their costumes, these girls were unstoppable, fearless and fabulous. In their eighties and nineties, the letters they wrote bear witness to a time when the gay community was hard to find.
For LGBTQ communities, it is rather difficult to look into their own history as for so long, it has been hidden or removed from the light of day. But as time goes on, more and more glimpses are being presented to the world; we are getting a deeper insight into what happened and what it was like for LGBTQ people in the 1940’s and 50’s. None highlight this more than in P.S. Please Burn This Letter.
By the smallest of chances, a pile of letters addressed to a Reno Martin are discovered, and inside is a treasure trove of correspondence from a few people detailing the life and times of those in the New York City drag ball scene in the 1950s. The fact that not only were these letters found, but some of those who sent them or are written in them are still alive is a minor miracle. Filmmakers Jennifer Tiexiera and Michael Seligman take full advantage of it to give us something astounding.
Using these letters as a jumping point to each chapter to the talking head interviews with the surviving participants who begin to weave their stories of how they found the drag scene. We have a wide cast of terrific characters here who are all memorable, and each one giving something different to the documentary; it is as perfectly cast a piece as you will find. They are all the actual people in the letters (coupled with historians to help the audience fill in the blanks), which only causes the audience to watch in awe as their stories are told.
We see the true joy that this period brought to all of them as they go on and on (I am almost 100% sure there are hours of footage with each person unused), about what they got up to, their outfits and the nights out that they had together. They create a wonderful picture with their words of this wondrous underground community. For each joy, there were challenging times, and we never shy away from those; in fact, it only helps build up the fascination of this mostly lost time in New York.
The letters contain many terminologies that people like myself, who can only be classed as unaware, would simply not understand. But as we go through the documentary, when a word is used in a letter, it is explained, allowing those unfamiliar to better understand and hook us in even more. What helps P.S. Burn This Letter Please is the honesty presented within it. The participants are unafraid to reveal everything they can about that time, be it the good times or the more difficult ones. Everything is up for discussion, though it is far better for you to watch and listen to these stories instead of having me list them off. With each captivating and educational story, we get such a broad scope of what life was like. From the balls, be it in Brooklyn, lower Manhatten or the prominent ones in Harlem to chance encounters to mop up some items from the MET Opera, the doc’s short enough runtime flies by.
Yet as good as the letters’ visuals and voiceovers, coupled with the interviews, are. It is the footage that all of the participants held onto that elevates the entire piece. We witness home video footage of them hanging out, having fun and getting ready. It helps solidify the community that was built during this time and our understanding of it. We see them living and enjoying themselves, and as the documentary floats along, you only want to learn more 90 or so minutes is not enough.
With a quick fast forward through time, we see how AIDS decimated this group’s lives, taking away some of those from that scene or loved ones and, in some cases, being murdered because of it. P.S. Burn This Letter Please, never needs to venture into this well-documented era when it’s own is so little known, but it is a wise move from our filmmakers as we get to see how it affected them as well. It was such an important time in their lives that to bypass it would be strange. Wonderfully we go beyond that time and see how some still prepare for parades and events to this day. Their pride in who they are and what they have gone through echoes through the screen to the audience, and it is hard not to remove your smile as you watch.
By bringing up such topics as AIDS, P.S. Burn This Letter Please never tries to shy away from the heavier side of the story despite the fond memories presented to the audience. Experiences such as Terry, now Anna springs up immediately. As others around her in the scene enjoy their paint and showing their gayness. She feels different, she doesn’t feel comfortable dressing up from a man to a woman, and thanks to the connections that kept the female impersonator scene alive, she can become what she truly felt she should be.
Couple this with the usually jolly Claude Diaz, who details when he helped Daphne prepare for an important ball. You see the memories flood him, so when he is presented with photos from that night, he breaks down. You feel every breath as he tries to compose himself as he states how that time is now gone for him. This shows how not everyone who was from that time still participates as heavily as others resonate with you. Diaz remembers the times in his youth that he feels he can never replicate, and it breaks him to know that he can’t. Emotion stays with this documentary, and the wonderful pacing and editing from Alex Bohs and Tiexiera cause it to grow into an unforgettable piece.
To highlight how important those letters and by proxy this documentary is, Professor Robert Corber states it plainly, there are no letters, archives of diaries of LGBTQ people from this era, in place of that are arrest records. How an entire community can only have that as documentation of their history in such a large country as the United States is unbelievable, but not unexpected due to those times. Thank goodness then for these letters, as they not only become vital documents of the era but a precious remembrance for those now gone.
While more time could be spent expanding on almost all of the matters brought up with little lost to the audiences attention, P.S. Burn This Letter Please presents its audience with enough to begin their own deep dives. With some hope, this isn’t the last we see of this until the recently unknown period in time.
To view more of our coverage of BFI Flare, please check out our other reviews below.
I am but a small website in this big wide world. As much as I would love to make this website a big and wonderful entity. That would bring in more costs. So, for now all I hope is to make Upcoming On Screen self sufficient. Well enough to where any website fees are less of a worry for me in the future. You can support the website below…
You can support us in a variety of ways (other than that wonderful word of mouth) and those lovely follows. If you are so inclined to help out then you can support us via Patreon, find our link here! We don’t want to ask much from you, so for now we have limited our tiers to £1.50 and £3.50. These will of course grow the more we plan to do here at Upcoming On Screen.
Thanks for reading, every view helps us out more than you would think (we have fragile egos). Until next time.