Documentary Celebrates Checkered Career of African-American Jewel Thief
Doris Payne, a black woman born in 1930 in Slab Fork, West Virginia, was raised during the racially segregated Jim Crow era. As did all black people at that time, Doris suffered from withering racial discrimination as a child, but that wasn’t her only problem. Her family life was dysfunctional, and her mother was routinely beaten by her father, right in front of her.
That awful home life must have had a terrible effect on her, and at an early age, she turned to crime. The first criminal thing she did may have been done to help get her mother out of the house and away from her father. She seems to have had a plan. First, she stole a diamond from a department store, then she fenced it, and used the money to help her mom escape the abusive marriage. She obviously liked the results of what she had done, because this was just the beginning of her life of crime. Doris took to robbing jewelers like a fish takes to water, and she gradually got bolder and classier, escalating to seven figure takes by visiting upscale retailers such as Cartier and Tiffany.
Her modus operandi was smart. She would gain the confidence of a gullible store clerk, and once the was achieved, she would use various distracting devices such as sleight of hand and a dizzying hand jive. Her bad behavior netted her millions in gems over the course of a checkered career that spans six decades so far. This has kept the sticky-fingered Doris permanently on the run from authorities, although she has been caught a number of times.
She also escaped once – in the 1980s while in federal custody in Ohio, she slipped away during a hospital visit.
Doris specialized in identity theft, becoming expert at impersonating wealthy socialites in exotic locales. She did just that in Monaco where she passed herself off as the wife of movie director Otto Preminger. Overall, Doris has employed at least 20 aliases, used 11 Social Security numbers and 9 passports in her pursuit of ill-gotten gems.
Brief stints in prison couldn’t cure Doris’ compulsive kleptomania. In 2010, she was arrested in Costa Mesa, California for stealing a $1,300 Burberry trench coat from a Saks Fifth Avenue, and in 2011, at the age of 80, Doris was sentenced in a San Diego court to 16 months in prison for stealing a 1 carat diamond ring. You might think that was the end of her career, but no. She is presently doing time behind bars for purloining a precious stone worth 22Gs in 2013.
The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne is a documentary of dubious intentions, co-directed by Matthew Pond and Kirk Marcolina. The directors futilely endeavor to paint an empathetic picture of Doris, the unrepentant octogenarian, who simply fails to earn any respect from the audience. Her odious line of work has serious consequences not only for herself but for others, such as the tearful clerk who was fired for being fleeced by the wily old recidivist.
Doris Payne, is an unappealing, anti-role model who stole millions from the rich and simply frittered it away on herself in decadent fashion.
Very Good (2.5 stars)
Running time: 74 minutes
Distributor: Film Forum
See a trailer for The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne: