By Andrea Thompson
Media like “Paris Is Burning” and “Pose” may have familiarized the mainstream with much of the lexicon under discussion in the documentary “P.S. Burn This Letter Please,” but it remains an important exploration of a period of LGBTQ history that’s been seriously neglected. As the film itself points out, we return to the past to find ourselves, and that’s nearly impossible to do if history never acknowledged your presence in the first place. Rather than archives of letter or diaries, marginalized people tend to have arrest records, especially when horrified relatives tend to destroy other reliable sources of information. Which is why the discovery of a box of letters in 2014 that dated back to the 1950s is so damn monumental.
And oh, what letters. They were all addressed to a man named Reno Martin, whose friends happened to be drag queens in 1950s New York City. The writers clearly have the kind of personalities that don’t do anything as redundant as leap from the page; you almost expect them to step gracefully from the letters themselves, fabulously dressed. The previously mentioned media focused on later decades such as the 80s and 90s, so to have a portrait of another era by the people who actually lived it in all its beauty and ugliness is indeed a rare find. Even more astonishing, many of the writers are still alive, and the fact that they’re all in the their 80s and 90s doesn’t seem to hinder them from recalling the time period, or from being active in the community. They have certain commonalities such as rejection, and a willingness to be who they were at great risk. New York City offered them more opportunities to do so, even if it didn’t exactly offer safety.
The problem is that while relating their histories, directors Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera can’t quite seem to decide whether to view history through their subjects, or view these subjects through history. They have great stories to tell which are somewhat allowed to shine, but at times the documentary seems more concerned with politics while neglecting the personal, which leaves both incomplete. “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” is a fascinating glimpse into the time and place it chooses to explore, including the clubs which seem to offer them a safe haven but were more interested in exploiting them, and how the city seem to embrace and reject them in equal measure. There’s also debate about the term drag queen itself, as some subjects seemed to identify as female impersonators, or trans, even if the latter word isn’t used. There’s also little acknowledgment of any other decade besides the 80s, when AIDS tore into the community with the force of a destructive tornado. Such neglect of the some the rich characters who go underexplored in the film feels like a crime itself.