Hot Docs 2013: ‘Doris Payne’ captures the inextricable link between its subject’s ‘Life and Crimes’

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The_Life_And_Crimes_Of_Doris_Payne_1.470x264The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne
Directed by Matthew Pond & Kirk Marcolina
USA, 2013

The movies have taught us a great many things. How to “meet cute”. How to sing in the rain. How to squint into the sun. How to keep an eye in the frame when a juicy tear’s on the way. But perhaps most of all, they’ve revealed the tremendous allure (and symbolic expressivity) of smooth criminality. Matthew Pond & Kirk Marcolina’s film creates an unforgettable portrait of a woman whose crimes are her life – not merely in the sense that they constitute her livelihood, but ultimately in the way that her larcenous resume functions as a powerful statement of artistic intent.

The documentary introduces Doris Payne as an 80-something woman awaiting trial for a sleight-of-hand performance at a San Diego jewelry counter. Proud of her ongoing achievements and eager to regale the filmmakers with tales from her globe-trotting, rock-robbing past, the grandmotherly Black woman nevertheless insists that she is not responsible for the particular crime in question . The message is clear from the start: this woman is not “repentant”. She’s offended by the very suggestion that anyone could possibly catch her in the act (even with the aid of modern surveillance cameras). The film shifts deftly back and forth through the decades – providing valuable biographical, sociological and even pop cultural context for this extraordinary American life. Along the way, we meet Doris’ lifelong friend, her current courtroom champion and her doting (and, in one case, perhaps dependent) children, with whom she had almost nothing to do until later in their lives.

With Doris’ charismatic encouragement, the directors place their subject’s life in the grand tradition of Josephine Baker, Richard Wright and Miles Davis – great Black American artists who had to cross the Atlantic in order reach their full potential. In Doris’ case, mainstream inspirations like Cary Grant’s debonair Riviera Robin Hood in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief also showed the way – and the film brilliantly conveys the audacity of her imaginative leap into those suave shoes on the other side of the segregationist divide. The Old World both applauded this woman’s stylish impersonation of moneyed mondainity and sought (for the most part in vain) to punish her for demonstrating just how closely her dexterous reach matched her grasp of the Continent’s cultural codes.

The meaning of Doris’ life and crimes come startlingly into focus when she discusses her thwarted childhood dream of dancing ballet. Deprived (by oppressive racial ideology) of the opportunity to exhibit her grace on a stage, she resolved to make her mark in the world by becoming a kind of twilit Terpsichore, whose movements astonish without ever being seen. It’s a bittersweet triumph at best. The film is very clear on that point. In building a self and an artistic practice that places her physical person in constant jeopardy, Doris has become the living embodiment of opposition to an unjust (and overwhelmingly entrenched) economic and social order. Her now-frail (and potentially incarcerated) octogenarian form and her transcendent trickster smile display both the ravages and the rewards of intransigent rebellion.

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne makes its world premiere at the Scotiabank Theatre on April 26 (7 pm). It will also show at the ROM on April 28 (4 pm) and at the Scotiabank Theatre on May 1 (1:30 pm).

Consult the complete Hot Docs Festival schedule here.

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