Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
On November 18, 1978, 908 people died in Jonestown, Guyana. The children went first: rambunctious boys, little girls in sundresses, babies just beginning to toddle. Parents gave children the poisoned punch, then filled their own cups and laid down to die. At the helm of the mass suicide he called it "revolutionary suicide" was Jim Jones, the charismatic leader of the Peoples Temple.
But the story of the Peoples Temple is much more complex, surreal, enraging and, ultimately, heartbreaking than the "poison Kool-Aid" tale that most people know. In the extraordinarily well-researched, affecting documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, director Stanley Nelson explores the entire arc of Peoples Temple, from its admirably humanitarian beginnings to its unthinkably brutal end. The young Jim Jones cut a handsome figure, and his desire to obliterate segregation and raise people out of poverty gained him considerable popularity among progressives. He railed against racism and practiced Christianity in a socialist sense. Feed the children. Care for the old. Give your material possessions away. Jones built several state-of-the-art senior centers and allowed himself only a run-down, cement-block house.
As the Peoples Temple congregation grew, so did Jones' sense of self-importance. "If you wanted a friend, Jim would be your friend," Stanley Clayton, one of Jonestown's few survivors, tells filmmaker Nelson. "If you wanted a father, he'd be your father. If you wanted a god, he'd be your god."
Jones insinuated himself and his congregation into the social movements of the �70s, most notably the civil-rights movement. If there was any sort of protest, any rumor of a march, he and hundreds of Peoples Temple congregants would show up to participate. "It was like a birthday cake for [progressive] politicians, times twelve," a journalist tells Nelson. But when a group of Peoples Temple defectors talked to the press most notably to the magazine New West, which published a scathing investigative piece Jones wanted out of the limelight, fast. Right before the magazine hit the stands, he and many of his followers relocated from San Francisco to Guyana.
Nelson's film is remarkable on several levels. First, Jim Jones' life is incredibly (and disturbingly) well-documented. Nelson splices current-day interviews (which include journalists, Jonestown survivors, an aide to the congressman Jones had murdered in Guyana, and Jones' adopted African-American son) with archival footage, recordings and declassified FBI photos. Nelson has clearly done his research, and while Jones' final days were those of a paranoid monster, debilitated by drugs and screaming for the sacrifice of his people, the director shows just how so many bright, generous people could be swayed to follow such a man.
The film is disturbing in what it reveals about the nature of truth, and the need to belong to something bigger than one's self. The images of the corpses in Guyana will stay with you, but the true heartbreak is this: How did a cause that started out noble turn so horribly wrong? Jones urged his people to "die with dignity." He told them they'd find peace. But survivor Tim Carter, whose wife and infant son died in his arms, sums it up this way: "This was not revolutionary. It was a fucking slaughter."
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple begins Friday, February 9, in a one-week exclusive engagement at the Tivoli Theatre (6350 Delmar Boulevard, University City).