In Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, director Stanley Nelson has made a monumental and moving contribution to the debate about Jim Jones and the members of Peoples Temple who followed him from Indiana to California to Guyana and to their deaths in Jonestown.
The film opens with the stark image of these words:
On November 18th, 1978
in Jonestown, Guyana,
909 member of Peoples Temple died
in what has been called the largest
mass suicide in modern history
“Nobody joins a cult,” a former member of Peoples Temple begins, then adds, “Nobody joins something they think is going to hurt them.” That sentiment echoes throughout the film. The early recruits to Peoples Temple never thought Jim Jones was ever going to hurt them. Certainly the people whom the Temple ministered during its years in San Francisco and Los Angeles never thought Jim Jones was ever going to hurt them.
We see Jim Jones preaching and converting thousands as the choir and the preacher work together in the best traditions of the black church taken to new heights. When you joined the Temple, you were adopted into the family – a family committed to a new social gospel where everyone’s needs were everyone’s concern.
We see healings and adoration.
The joy and unbelievable commitment of the members and their leader in the early days of nation-stumping bus caravans and evangelical revivals attracted all kinds of attention, followers and successes.
Jones promised his followers a life in the Promised Land, and they believed him. For many, life as a member of Peoples Temple exceeded the joy and fulfillment of anything else they had ever experienced. We hear testimony from members of the Temple that life in Guyana came to be “heaven on earth” for them.
We hear about members willingly working 20-hour days and giving everything to the “cause.”
And then the discontent begins to build. We hear rumblings that things have gone too far, that the 24-hour PA broadcasts are too much to take, that some members may want to get away. We hear about “defectors” and a growing outside threat.
We hear about Jim Jones getting sick, growing paranoid and testing his followers’ faithfulness by alarming them with a threat of a poisoned drink.
We hear about family members spying on each other and the growing fears of public beatings and humiliation.
We hear harsh x-rated descriptions of Jim Jones secret sexual conduct.
And we wonder:
…how could such talented, loving and capable people give up so much to any leader?
…where are the voices of dissent?
…what might Jonestown have become had Congressman Ryan not visited the compound himself?
…how could things change so fast from the initial positive reaction of the congressman one day to mass hysteria the next?
…who organized the guards and where did the guns come from?
…was there an element of evil present in Jonestown that no one has yet been able to identify?
…and finally, why? why? why?
* * * * *
Jim Jones could not deliver on his promise, and this film reminds us all why he could not.
Perhaps there is no portal to the Promised Land that does not first pass through the doorway of death.
This film is the most provocative and lively documentary you may ever see, and the questions it encourages us to explore are as powerful as the film itself.
Thank you, Stanley Nelson, and may your film inspire us to continue to dig at the ruins of Jonestown until everyone who died there, as well as their families and friends, might find true peace in the certainty that those deaths were not in vain.
(Richard Lawrence is a retired Methodist minister who was active in the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)