– review

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006)
Stanley Nelson, director

In 1978 cult leader Jim Jones ordered over 900 members of his Peoples Temple in Guyana to ‘drink the Kool-Aid’ and commit mass self-extermination. Jones’ order and execution have become as iconic the devil’s pitch fork or Hitler’s clipped mustache and Nazi salute. At a time when born-again Christianity had become trendy on college campuses and the battles of the civil rights and antiwar movement protests were still fresh, the Peoples Temple seemed like just another goofy utopian movement coming out of San Francisco. Nearly thirty years later and in a very much changed world, Stanley Nelson brings to film a searingly insightful and candid examination of Johnstown, shedding for the first time a solid light on what happened, how and why.

In fact, most Americans would not have heard of Jones or his Peoples Temple at the time the news broke of the Guyana massacre, had not New West magazine published a widely noted expose of the cult in the summer of 1977. Nelson draws upon never before seen home movies, photographs, and material from numerous personal and professional archives to piece together a spell-binding story of what went wrong. Jones himself grew up in a poor, alcoholic family in rural Indiana, a social outcast from an early age because of his peculiar personality traits. His own experiences as an outcast led him into a deep private identification with poor African-Americans. His penchant for not quite childish ‘playing preacher’ would find a home in the black Pentecostal church tradition.

Following unconsciously in the path of religious upstart sects before him, strikingly the Pilgrims who eventually landed in Massachusetts Bay or the Mormons who eventually settled in Utah, Jones took his own parish-turned-wandering religious community to Ukiah, then San Francisco, California. As Jones’ addiction to drugs and power grew, his own messianism warped into an end-of-times paranoid fantasy. By the time the Kool-Aid came out, he had clearly been rehearsing the mass death option in his mind for a long time.

Stanley Nelson has built a solid reputation for his historical documentaries that examine crucial, but overlooked components of American cultural and political history, and include The Murder of Emmett Till and A Place of Our Own. His own passion and empathy for the marginalized inform this film at every turn. Nelson interviews several of the survivors of the Jonestown massacre, allowing them to tell their dramatic stories in their own words, pictures, songs, and photographs. He follows a now familiar trajectory, of how poor, idealistic people of faith were literally led to their slaughter. In the process, Nelson raises questions about the seeds of self-destruction embedded in the tradition of monotheistic religion and its secular left counterpart of utopianism. In retrospect, the roots of today’s zealotry appear powerfully laid out in such well-meaning, but self-deceiving fringe movements.

What finally emerges is a thoroughly plumbed investigation, heart-breaking interviews of depth and breadth with witnesses and survivors, and a nuanced reconstruction of the times in which Jonestown became possible. As the level of public officials’ deceit, duplicity, and arrogant arrogation of even the pretense of decency continues to mount today, Jonestown has become all too easy to understand. In the end, along with providing the definitive study of what actually happened then, Nelson offers up a powerful cautionary tale for people of conscience seeking to pull society as a whole back on to a track of sanity and civilization today.