“We didn’t commit suicide,” Jim Jones gravely intones in an audiotape capturing the final moments of Jonestown. “We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”
Nearly 30 years after the deaths of more than 900 people in the Guyanese jungle, Stanley Nelson’s deeply affecting Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple replays Jones’s final, twisted address, setting in motion what the doc tabs “the largest mass ‘suicide’ in modern history.” Using a remarkable cache of vintage footage, as well as candid interviews with Peoples Temple survivors, relatives, and other eyewitnesses, Nelson examines the massacre with a journalist’s eye. Why the tragedy happened may never be explained, but seldom before has the how of Jonestown been so clearly delineated.
Long before “drinking the Kool-Aid” filtered into the popular lexicon, young Jim Jones was an ambitious preacher whose ideas about racial equality proved too radical for small-town Indiana. Jones and his wife, Marceline, adopted several children from different ethnic backgrounds; one the few still alive — Jim Jones Jr., who says he was the first African American child to be adopted by white parents in Indiana — appears in Jonestown, as do early church members who followed Jones to Northern California (so chosen because he believed the region would be safe in the event of a nuclear attack). The racially diverse commune was “like a paradise,” a former resident recalls; recordings of Jones’s uplifting sermons and the jubilant Peoples Temple choir, as well as images of happy farmers, seem to bear this out.
Of course, illusion played a big part in Jones’s metier. One of Nelson’s coups is footage of a faith healing paired with an interview that exposes the “patient” as one of Jones’s (perfectly healthy) secretaries. Various ex-followers corroborate each other’s horror stories; one memorable sequence features overlapping testimony about how devotion was measured by sleep deprivation. Jones’s sexual proclivities, which contradicted what he preached and involved sleeping with both male and female disciples (whether or not they were willing), are discussed, as is the general feeling of fear and paranoia that increased as Jones gained more control. A “loyalty test” involving a vat of untainted punch is also detailed; a woman who was there surmises that Jones wondered if he was “potent enough to get people to do it.”
Jones’s ability to manipulate his followers demonstrates the kind of power later echoed by other self-destructive cults. But while Heaven’s Gate seemed a little loony from the start, what with the space aliens and all, the Peoples Temple represented itself beautifully to outsiders. The San Francisco political community was especially taken with the energetic, racially diverse congregation; as Jonestown points out, the church could instantly supply masses of well-behaved protestors, as well as influence key elections by voting as a single bloc. On a television talk show, then–California assemblyman Willie Brown deems the Peoples Temple “the kind of religious thing I get excited about.”
Even the Guardian was taken in by the Peoples Temple, reporting on its progressive humanitarian efforts in a March 31, 1977, article titled “Peoples Temple: Where Activist Politics Meets Old-Fashioned Charity.” Read with the benefit of hindsight, the piece is often chilling, as when Jones arrives late to a church service because he had to stop and console a woman “who was talking suicide.” Jones’s distrust of government is already in full force (“I have a lot of guilt to know my taxes go to the shah of Iran and Chile”); his hatred of the press (as the film explains, inflammatory coverage hastened his expatriation) less so.
A good chunk of Jonestown is devoted to November 18, 1978, aided with startling footage of doomed congressman Leo Ryan’s Guyana visit and the chaos that erupted in its wake. Two of the men who lived through “White Night” but saw family members (including young children) die before their eyes share their stories, and the emotional impact is undeniable. And then there’s that audiotape, which is even more frightening when replayed. As Jonestown reveals, the line between suicide and murder could not be more distorted: Deceived by promises of paradise, hundreds of people joined a church that championed equal rights — then found themselves living in an isolated world where even the most basic rights were denied.