According to The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne, a Hollywood movie is being planned about the life of its title character, featuring Halle Berry in the lead role. For a multitude of reasons, I hope that it’s good. There need to be more good films about black women. There need to be more good films about jewel thieves. There need to be more good films about how poverty and discrimination drives crime. Most of all, there needs to be a good film about Doris Payne. Because this documentary certainly doesn’t fill that need.
Payne is one of the world’s most accomplished jewel thieves. Over the course of 60 years, she has lifted an estimated $2 million worth of merchandise from stores across North America and Europe. She would walk in, engage a clerk in pleasantries as she tried on jewelry and set off some simple misdirection so that she could walk out with a piece without anyone at all the wiser. In the course of her career, Payne tells us proudly, she has never been caught in the act. But as this film catches up with her, Payne is on trial for allegedly stealing a diamond ring, with footage that may or may not be her on security camera as the primary evidence. With the court proceedings as the backdrop, Payne relates her life story to the audience.
The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne has the same problem as another new doc, A Fragile Trust [see our review here]. It too is about a tremendous liar that doesn’t understand how to properly approach a liar. Thus does it ruin what could have been a riveting story. In this case, it hurts even worse, since Payne is so much more fascinating than Jayson Blair. It’s not just her backstory and profession, either. Payne’s brand of deception is more seductive than Blair’s. While he is standoffish and subdued, she eagerly plays the role of kindly old lady.
It’s an act that’ll easily take in the audience, and it appears to have taken in directors Kirk Marcolina and Matthew Pond, as well, since they never bother with trying to pick it apart. One scene looks promising at the outset, as we learn that Payne lied to her parole officer about going to meet the directors when she was really going somewhere else. But nothing comes of the filmmakers’ questioning. They aren’t willing to push against the sweet grandmother persona.
Overall, the film has a lackluster, History Channel-lite style presentation. It mixes cheaply done recreations into Doris’s recollections and “expert” testimonial that is questionable at best. Is the screenwriter for the potential Halle Berry movie really the best commentator to use?
More than that, the film ignores all the implications of its subject. Payne was born into segregated Southern poverty but fought to get out of it via extremely unusual means. Her strategy of dressing and acting “properly” so as to not arouse suspicion in jewelry shops touches on all sorts of issues of respectability politics. The struggles her children face with their own impoverished circumstances demonstrate barriers to upward mobility still faced by black people. But the movie only reduces these things to their most simplistic terms, often doing so to push Payne as an inspirational or admirable figure. And that does an incredibly complicated human being a shameful disservice.
The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne is now playing at Film Forum in New York City. For info on upcoming screenings, check the doc’s website.