Incredibly moving documentary packed full of vibrant characters and outrageous stories, P.S Burn This Letter Please brings the 1950s drag scene to life
In 2014 a box of personal letters from the 1950s were discovered, written by New York City ‘female illusionists’ and drag performers, they give a rare insight into the world of a group of people who were marginalised and largely ignored by the history books. The makers of P.S Burn This Letter Please spent the last six years tracking down some of the surviving authors and their friends, and through a series of interviews with letter writers, friends, historians and some rare archival footage they have been able to bring to life some incredible stories from this community.
The filmmakers bring to us a selection of interviews with men and women who are now in their 80s and 90s yet still ridiculously on the ball, their recollections about their adventures and struggles sure to capture modern audiences. Plus, given the huge mainstream global success of Rupauls Drag Race and Pose which have subsequently led to a new legion of fans for 80s drag doc Paris Is Burning, there can’t possibly have been a better time to be releasing a new film about the history of drag than now.
It’s an absurdly fun documentary, the former queens, illusionists and ‘mimics’ of P.S Burn This Letter Please sharing stories often so vivacious you’d think they were fiction. Opulent night clubs visited by celebrities and world famous artists. Connections to New York mafia dons. A ‘wig heist’ at the Metropolitan Opera that saw them investigated by the FBI. These personal histories are such iconic cultural moments that we must be incredibly thankful that the filmmakers have managed to save them for posterity.
Yet this multifaceted film also manages to be incredibly educational. Testimonials cover a broad range of topics including how the queens were viewed by the more gender conforming members of the gay community and the heterosexual community as a whole. It details the different sort of venues they performed at and the different sort of audiences who would attend them and delves into the relationship between the glamourous ball scene and the Harlem renaissance; establishing a successful, celebrated, racially integrated community years before most of the key Civil Rights Acts. It’s a wonderful snapshot of New York at that time.
For all the glitz and glamour there is also enormous poignancy to these stories. Several share their stories of coming out or being caught by family members, with one elderly man sharing the cruel words his father said to him as a child. Those words are repeated with a pain that is still so clearly etched despite some 70 years having passed. In the pre-Stonewall era the fact that these people were so publically themselves is an astonishing feat in itself.
A survivor named Claude Diaz is packed full of scandalous stories which he tells to the filmmakers with a glorious nonchalant manner that you want to listen to for days. He breaks down when given old photos of his drag friends which they have managed to uncover. ”I suddenly feel as though somebody had just stabbed me,” he says, “because I remember that night, I have to keep in mind that that’s over…and I’m sorry that it’s over and finished. You have no idea.”
The film leads rather inevitably to the AIDS crisis, as sadly all gay history approaching the 80s and 90s must do. It is gut wrenching to hear these men and women talk of the friends they lost and the stories cut short, several of them the letter writers who started this whole film in the first place. Yet there is a hopeful defiance to its ending as we see that some of the survivors are still in fact doing drag to this day. Their very existence was a form of resistance, suggests P.S Burn This Letter Please, and thankfully that spark has not gone out.
P.S Burn This Letter Please provides a vital and vibrant piece of queer history. Full of larger than life characters, fun lingo, crazy stories and touching remembrances; this is irresistable documentary filmmaking. Not just essential viewing for anyone interested in drag, but an essential film full stop.
P.S Burn This Letter Please is playing as part of BFI Flare, the London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival, between 17th – 28th March. You can buy tickets to stream it right here