It is a story that shocked people around the world, as word of the mass suicide (or, as some would say, murder) hit newsstands and television screens from Alaska to Zambia.
On November 18, 1978, Reverend Jim Jones and about 900 members of his Peoples Temple congregation ingested cyanide-laced grape-flavored Kool Aid and expired at their isolated compound in the remote jungles of Guyana. Jones, the paranoid and demonic cult leader who claimed to be Jesus and Lenin reincarnate, exhorted (forced, in some cases) his disciples--men, women and children whom he had taught to call him 'Dad'--to join him in mass suicide.
Just knowing about their demise is chilling, but meeting the disciples face to face, as one does in Stanley Nelson's gripping documentary, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, which was released theatrically in November, 2006, and is currently available on DVD, is devastating.
Director Stanley Nelson puts together a convincing assemblage of home movies, Peoples Temple and other official documents, interviews with journalists, historians, survivors and relatives of cult members, and the shocking tapes of Jones actually spurring his flock to suicide to show the increasingly harrowing sequence of events at the cult's compound.
Nelson's pictorial and voice over narrative makes for a fascinating, grimly compelling you-are-there-to-witness-it account of the rise and demise of Jones and his People's Temple.
Like Jesus Camp, Deliver Us From Evil, and other documentaries that enlighten us to the extreme power religious leaders can have over our lives and the lives of our loved ones, Jonestown demands our attention. Devoid of sensationalism and cynical exploitation, it is a completely credible study of just how religious fervor can and did go wrong.
All About Jones
Charismatic Jones, born in Indiana in 1931, was the neglected son of an alcoholic Ku Klux Klansman and his unhappy wife. Young Jim found a sense of belonging at the local Pentecostal church. He began preaching, eventually establishing his own interracial congregation in Indianapolis, where his sermonizing--apostolic socialism, as he called it--ostensibly promoted universal equality and Utopian values, and condemned class-based injustice and racism. Within a short period of time, Jones and his message became a beacon of hope for idealists, as well as for those who were disenfranchised and impoverished.
As an audience member, you, too, are convinced of Jones’ good intentions. It’s easy to see why disciples joined Jones, vastly extending his family of devotees.
'Dad' and his wife eventually extended their own immediate family, making their home interracial by adopting children of color.
In 1965, Jones moved his congregation to rural Ukiah, California, where he and his disciples established a self-sufficient, self-sustaining commune.
The Peoples Temple compound flourished, establishing senior citizen homes, offering employment and providing health care for members. People flocked to what they believed to be Utopia. The film shows that throughout this period, Jones and his crusade seemed engagingly positive, imbued with a persuasive idealism that recruited disciples.
In 1974, Jones moved the commune to San Francisco, where he became active in liberal political circles and helped elect Mayor George Moscone, who then appointed him to the city's Housing Commission.
Things Go Wrong
But, by now, Jones was being investigated by the government. Defectors were saying 'Dad' faked faith healings, brainwashed disciples, demanded unquestioning obedience, beat and humiliated the disobedient and, while preaching celibacy, was sexually predatory towards his followers.
Jones insisted on secrecy within his circle, but word about his behavior was getting out. The film presents eyewitness testimonials and fascinating archival footage revealing Jones' questionable behavior.
Days before publication of a damning journalistic exposé, 'Dad' fled with his flock to Guyana, to create Jonestown, an isolated compound where he, as shown in the film’s archival footage, became increasingly irrational and paranoid, continuously ranting and raging over loudspeakers, terrifying his disciples about the approaching Apocalypse and Armageddon.
Fearing loved ones who had followed Jones to Guyana were being held against their will, relatives and friends called for government intervention. Congressman Leo Ryan went to Jonestown and found the families' allegations valid. While attempting to leave, Ryan, three journalists and a defector were murdered by Jones' henchmen.
Then, 'Dad' decreed everyone must drink poison. The liquid was squirted into infants' mouths by syringe. Adult followers simply lined up, downed the lethal drink and died. The film doesn't flinch from showing what transpired. The footage can be extremely disturbing.
Think of Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple as a real life horror movie. The carnage is harrowing. The images will linger.