Judging the quality of a diamond is a learned skill. From understanding cut and color to analyzing carat and clarity, recognizing a real diamond is a luxury far from the reality of a poor working girl. Sixty years ago, Doris Payne changed her reality by using her charm and good looks to win entrée into the world of jewel thievery.
Her foray into crime began as a localized operation but soon expanded globally. From Monte Carlo to Tokyo, Payne stole over $2 million dollars worth of jewelry. While it was rare for a single woman to travel the world as a renowned jewel thief, it was unheard of for an African-American girl from a poor background. But Doris Payne is nothing if not rare.
With a criminal career spanning six decades, Payne has certainly led a life of excitement and intrigue. While America was occupied with the wholesome family image of the 1950s, Payne was learning how to fence stolen goods from a “Jew boy” named Babe. As America ravaged through the turbulent ’60s and revolutionary ’70s, Payne missed most of it as she scaled the world heisting jewels and gaining the trust of the wealthy.
And as the times changed, so did Payne’s persona—accumulating 32 aliases and 11 social security numbers. In 2008, while Payne was being shifted from prison to prison for various charges of stolen goods, a Who Is Doris Payne? film was announced, starring Halle Berry. The film never made it past the announcement stage, but Payne’s story remained an astounding feat worthy of the Hollywood treatment.
Directors Matthew Pond and Kirk Marcolina knew Payne’s story needed to be told. “Matthew read about Doris in the newspaper and thought it was an interesting story,” says Marcolina. “You instantly want to find out more about her and what makes her tick.” With interviews from Who Is Doris Payne? screenwriter Eunetta Boone and candid interviews with Payne herself, The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne: A Tale of Carats, Cons and Creating Your Own American Dream was created.
Airing on Al Jazeera America, the documentary features interviews with Payne’s children and close friend. It also chronicles Payne’s current case, another charge of theft. Despite witness testimony and digital proof, Payne maintains her innocence, and the results will surprise you.
The film is a journey into the experiences of an 83-year-old Black woman woven with charisma and contradictions. On one hand, Payne is a sweet grandmother with an inviting spirit. On the other, she’s a manipulative thief. As the doc shows, Payne is fearless in her pursuits and has little regard for the consequences of her actions. “She definitely has two personalities that she can turn on and off,” says Matthew Pond.
In a scene where Payne has been caught in a lie about her recent whereabouts, she definitely flips the switch. “She has the ability to be sweet and kind at one moment and then turn into a totally different person. She has a personality that is probably more variable than most,” Pond adds.
Many words have been used to describe Payne. Some have labeled her a narcissist, master manipulator, even a sociopath. Whatever you choose to call her, when asked why she initially chose to pursue a life of crime, she cites helping her mother as a reason.
Payne’s personality is either a learned defense or a tactic to get what she wants. Whatever it is, it’s proven to be a double-edged sword. While Payne’s ability to maneuver around the world as an uneducated Black woman was a wondrous feat, her life of crime is nothing to boast about. The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne carefully considers her story while showing the consequences of her choices.
Instead of living out the end of her life in peace, she consistently faces the choices of her past—and seemingly continues to enjoy dabbling in crime. “All of us have good and bad inside,” Pond says. “You read about her in the paper and immediately vilify her because she is a criminal. She just lives in the extremes of both sides. That’s what makes her so intriguing.” In reference to her place in history, co-director Kirk Marcolina says, “Doris’s story is very much pulling your self up by the bootstraps, which falls within the American dream. It’s not accepting the hand you were given.”
We may never fully understand the reasoning behind Payne’s actions, or how she spent 60 years stealing jewels around the world. What we know is that Payne’s life is not only a cautionary tale, but adds to a long list of complex figures in Black history. Pond agrees: “Her life is a footnote in American history.”
For more information, visit DorisPaynefilm.com.
Margeaux Johnson is a writer and TV aficionado. You can follow her on Twitter @MargeauxJay.