When I first read the synopsis of this film – about an 80-year-old notorious international jewel thief – I knew I would be in for a fantastic story, if nothing else. Just looking back on what this woman has seen and done in her lifetime was bound to be incredible. What I didn’t expect, however, was to fall in love with this lady and root for her happy ending so completely.
Doris Payne was born to a black coal miner father and seamstress Cherokee mother in segregated West Virginia, and learned at a young age how easy it was for her to steal – particularly from white upper-class people, who rarely paid much attention to her at all. Slipping into the role more completely as an adult, Doris’ easy-going charm and intelligent personality became some of her most disarming attributes, and helped make it possible for her to walk off with millions of dollars worth of high-end jewels over her more than 60-year career. Capturing the attention and imagination of filmmakers Matthew Pond and Kirk Marcolina, a film about Doris and her particularly unique method of chasing the American Dream was born.
It’s evident right from the beginning that Doris Payne is a complex individual. Using photographs, documents, interviews with friends, family, and law enforcement, as well as recreations of highlights from Doris’ life – as well as convervations with the woman herself – Pond and Marcolina weave together a tapestry of images and information that’s as rich and as full of life as though they’d been alive to bear witness to it all themselves. And at the heart of it all is Doris, bringing her own creative colour and flair to the whole tale.
While one can’t always be sure how much is truth, memory tainted by too many past years, and outright fabrication, one thing is clear: Doris Payne is a master storyteller. It’s her seeming genuineness and creativity that no doubt boosted her ability to make her audience believe that she was whoever she said she was, every time, all those years. Flashing her brilliant smile and pairing it with an outward calm that covers any hint of nerves she may feel inside, Doris gleefully and unapologetically recounts her grandest adventures for the cameras, the courtroom, and anyone in between who will listen. She explains her own sense of morality with such conviction that it is easy to get caught up in her spirit and sense of fun, even when she gives up a plea bargain to risk another 5 years in prison for allegedly stealing yet another ring from yet another high-end boutique.
Doris continues to recount her life story as she awaits a verdict in her latest trial, and calmly allows the audience to wait with bated breath on the edge of our seats with her. We sit with her in the courtroom, and then as we wait for the jury to come back, Doris tells us more about her daring past. She is a unique and complex figure that is almost impossible to judge for, in the end, how many of us can say that we have lived even an ounce of the life that Doris Payne has carved for herself? Halle Berry isn’t set to play ME in a movie about my life, for example, but she will be playing Doris Payne. Doris, who hasn’t sat back and waited for life to deal her next hand – she has gone out and pulled her aces whenever possible. She’s paid her dues when needed (well, until she’s escaped custody again), she’s been generous with her fortune, she loves her children, and she’s travelled the world. Should she have denied herself this life, because she had the misfortune of being born into a world that would have made it impossible to have lived it any other way? Is she a bad person because she used her talents and made her own luck?
Before meeting Doris on-screen, my answers to those questions may have been very different. But now, after having been given a fuller picture – as Doris herself says, “when the game is rigged from the start, is it unfair to cheat?”
The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne has one more screening at Hot Docs in Toronto:
Wed May 1st at 1:30pm
Find more information at the links below: