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Tessa Thompson Lands Another Incredible Role

A biopic about jewel thief Doris Payne is finally happening.
Valkyrie Tessa Thompson
By  · Published on February 14th, 2018

A biopic about jewel thief Doris Payne is finally happening.

As if Tessa Thompson‘s career wasn’t already going extremely well, she’s now signed on to lead an untitled biopic about Doris Payne, a woman who has spent six decades as a jewel thief. According to Variety, Thompson will also produce the project, which is described as a “high-concept action-drama in the vein of Catch Me If You Can and The Thomas Crown Affair.”

The 87-year-old Payne began robbing jewelry stores as a teenager. She would dress nice and charm the store clerk into letting her see an assortment of items and in the process would take one or two. Payne worked around the world, including an occasion in which she stole a 10-carat diamond ring in Monte Carlo in the 1970s.

In 2011, she was sentenced to 16 months in prison for stealing a 1-carat diamond ring. While incarcerated she consented to interviews that became part of a 2013 documentary, The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne, in which she describes her earliest crimes up to her most recent arrest. As a lifelong career criminal still working into her eighties, there will be a great deal of material in Payne’s life for the film to draw upon.

One of the criticisms of the documentary on Payne was the lack of proper consideration for her background. Payne was born into poverty and segregation in the South. There are lots of complicated issues to be addressed in her story, including the means she used to lift herself out of poverty and the implications of respectability politics in her strategy of dressing a certain way so as to appear non-threatening to store clerks.

Her background is an important part of her story. Although the story is very different, there’s a potential here for comparisons to be drawn to the accomplishments of I, Tonya, which approaches its subject with a thorough examination of her life before the incident that made her infamous. While I, Tonya‘s highly stylized approach may not suit the tone of the Payne biopic, it still could positively inform the production process of Thompson’s film.

This biopic will also come on the heels of two other highly anticipated female-led heist films, the spin-off Ocean’s 8 from director Gary Ross and the Widows remake by Steve McQueen, both due out later this year. Considering that the vast majority of heist films follow male characters, these films are potentially part of a very interesting trend of approaching the subject matter from another perspective.

Addressing the project, Thompson said she has been working on the story for a while and is excited to see that this “dream is coming true.” The rising star was a scene stealer as Valkyrie in last year’s Thor: Ragnarok and will be seen this year in the Sundance hit Sorry To Bother You and Alex Garland’s Annihilation. But the Payne biopic will be her first lead role since 2014’s Dear White People, and while she’s been consistently outstanding in supporting performances, it’s exciting to see her step into the spotlight for this film.

While no writer or director has been named for the project, there has been a biopic in development in Hollywood for many years with a screenplay by Eunetta T. Boone, who also appears in the documentary. Halle Berry was attached to star in the film, which had the title Who Is Doris Payne?, almost a decade ago. Thompson’s attempt will be made by Codeblack Films, which recently produced the Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez on Me.

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Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.