I’ve always been interested in the story of Jim Jones and his People’s Temple, but I was never really aware of the details beyond the infamous purple kool-aid. Director Stanley Nelson’s ‘Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple’ is a comprehensive retelling of the whole tragic story, directly from the mouths of the people who were there. Even those familiar with the events leading up to the November 18th, 1978 massacre will get an emotional first-hand perspective from the people who trusted Jones with their faith and their families.
Initially, Jim Jones was seen as an innovator, breaking down the race barriers with his People’s Temple church which consisted mostly of minorities and the underclass. The could’ve been a form of rebellion against his Father’s ideals, having been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Growing up, Jones had always sympathized with the underprivileged. He became a preacher in the 50’s and sold monkeys (Yes. He sold monkeys.) to raise money to start up his own church. It was Jones’s fight for equality that drew so many followers to his church. They had someone to believe in that was clearly on their side. One interviewee in the film even says that they didn’t think of Jim Jones as a white man. They trusted him and stood behind him no matter what. With its number increasing and the political volatility of the 60’s rising, the church took part in numerous public rallies and Jones became a figurehead for racial equality. He was even appointed to the city’s Housing Commission by the Mayor of San Francisco.
As his power increased, so did Jones’s ego. He instructed his followers to look at him as their god, claiming to be an incarnation of Jesus, among other spiritual leaders. He was manipulative and becoming more and more crazy thanks in part to his increasing drug use. He was known to make sexually suggestive comments to both men and women, claiming that he was the only true heterosexual in the world. In one instance he stripped a woman down in front of his entire congregation. At this point members of the church began to question Jones’ actions. Eventually, some ex-members of the church contacted the authorities about his erratic and sometimes abusive behaviour. As newspaper articles began publically questioning the validity of his church, Jones decided to take action and move the entire congregation to Guyana. They would avoid any concerns regarding their questionable practices, and start over with a self-sufficient commune constructed in the middle of the jungle.
Interviews with surviving People’s Temple members (including Jones’s adopted son Jim Jones Jr., who was away with the People’s Temple basketball club on the day of November 18th) recount the events that lead up to the mass suicide that left over 900 people dead. Due to allegations that Jones was holding people against their will, U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan led a team of investigators and NBC journalists to the People’s Temple commune to dispel any rumours and find out the truth behind the seemingly successful religious community. We see footage of Ryan arriving to the camp, interacting with its members and giving a speech commending the church for its overwhelming sense of community. It was that day that a member attempted to slip Ryan a note asking for his help. This caught the attention of both the news crew and some other members of the church. As Jones discovered that some of his followers were fleeing with the congressman and his film crew, a bloody revolt ended in a shocking runway shoot out, leading to the aforementioned drinking of the cyanide spiked kool-aid. (Actually it was flavour-aid. I’m sure the kool-aid people will never live that one down.)
Held together by stock footage and audio recordings, the story of the People’s Temple is retold with the energy of a thriller. The final moments at the Guyana camp unfold before your eyes as the NBC news cameras captured interviews with disgruntled followers who simply saw the Congressman’s visit as a way out. The film makes good use of the eerie final sermon performed by Jones as the members drank the poison, inter-cut with the perspective of a surviving interviewee who was actually there and witnessed the death of his entire family. It’s great to see such an amazing story told with such attention to detail and sense of style. Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple will remain a quintessential representation of the story of Jim Jones and the gradual loss of his sanity.