TRIBECA 2020 FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW! These days, drag is practically mainstream, with RuPaul dominating several prime time slots every week. Bars even have viewing nights where you can watch his shows hosted by a local drag queen. Anyone over 40, though, will remember a time when drag was not so widely accepted. Much like the LGBTQIA+ community at large, female impersonators had to go underground and create their own scene in secret lest they be arrested and thrown in jail under some Stalinistic guise of “morality.” This was especially the case in New York City during the 1950s. In P.S. Burn This Letter Please, filmmakers Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera beautifully document the drag culture of 65 years ago with grace and honesty.
When an abandoned storage unit in Los Angeles was finally unlocked and opened, the new owner found a box of handwritten letters all addressed to somebody named Reno. These letters candidly described the lives of those immersed in NYC’s clandestine drag culture and detailed the personalities of numerous “female impersonators” or “feme mimics,” as they preferred to be called then. When the letters were presented to the directors, they knew they had to track down the writers. Thankfully, they did, and most of them are still alive; well into their 90s.
“…beautifully documents the drag culture of 65 years ago with grace and honesty.”
Through text narrated from the original letters and interviews with the characters behind the stories, the directors offer a fascinating glimpse into a world that few outside of this social circle knew existed. From the earliest days of holding private drag parties that frequently ended with the police knocking on the door, to the bars who quietly ignored the way their patrons were dressed, and further on to the opening of NYC’s premiere drag club, 82 Club, and counted famous politicians and Hollywood stars as its patrons, the struggle of the subjects to just be themselves unfolds through reliable story-telling and absolute clarity.
As for the subjects, they may be close to 100, but they are far from being boring old farts. On the contrary, they are lively, animated, and direct. They’re proud of who they are, and, at this point, they’re too old to care who knows it. Their personalities are all unique as well, as they all come from widely different backgrounds, but in The City That Never Sleeps, they found each other and formed a bond that carried over in the letters that made their way to Los Angeles. They survived hostility, police harassment, and the AIDS epidemic, to tell their stories here so that we all remember that RuPaul’s status didn’t happen overnight.
Of course, we’re far from perfect. Drag queens still face a fair amount of hostility and violence daily. Protests erupt outside of libraries when they want to read children’s books to kids. But with the growing popularity of drag-themed television shows, more and more people will feel free to be who they are. Hopefully, some kid who’s contemplating suicide because their entire community is intolerant will see P.S. Burn This Letter Please and realize all they have to do is get the hell out of there.
P.S. Burn This Letter Please screened at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival.
"…lively, animated, and direct."