Having been born in Oakland in 1986, I am troubled that my first knowledge of this very significant and recent chapter, not just of Bay Area history but American history, came when I stumbled upon the etymology of the term “Kool-Aid drinker.”
As a filmmaker, it has always been second nature that my registry of particularly intriguing historical events should attach an instinctual cinematic cognition. What some others may register as a footnote in history – or, as with the Kool-Aid reference, a perverse idiom – doesn’t cross my mind unescorted by the sights, sounds, locations, faces, voices, dialogues, and intimate moments associated with it.
When my producer Niv Gat and I began exploratory development on a narrative film about Peoples Temple, we knew that, despite the cheaply exploitable elements of the millennial layperson’s understanding of the subject, such a film should not be made if it doesn’t succeed where previous portrayals have not only failed, but not even aspired. One vision we agreed upon from the start: To help eradicate the “Kool-Aid drinker” reference from the American lexicon forever.
From the loose pulp fiction spin-offs of the eighties and early nineties, to Ti West’s campy 2013 horror film The Sacrament, a cavalier handful of fly-by-night reenactments have informally licensed the familiar trope of suicide cultists in the jungle to sensationalize – and in so doing, trivialize – an occasion when daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers were ritually subject to a mass homicide. Yet such liberal artistic license disserviced them, as one thing I keep learning about Jonestown is that the real truth is far stranger – and more compelling – than fiction.
The schadenfreudic appetites whetted by such portrayals reinforce the self-validating question: What kind of person would ever get mixed up with such a crowd? Well, given the limited yet meaningful time I have spent thus far with Jonestown survivors – listening to their stories, meeting their children, breaking bread with them, laughing with them, and being humbled by their generous inclusivity – I can unapologetically say that if they are any reflection of the Temple in the 1970s, then I am that kind of person.
Further, for an Oakland-born millennial to underestimate the appeal of an emphatically colorblind minister in a 1950s Hoosier social climate, presiding over rainbow-tinted pews on the most segregated day of the week, and to assume I wouldn’t be eager to tithe 25 percent of my own income, would be myopic at best.
Equally myopic would be to attempt a film that endeavors to “figure out” Jim Jones and his flock. What I’ve learned in my years of research is that, the more I know about Peoples Temple, the more I know how little I know. Even the applicability of the term “know” becomes questionable, as the patchwork of testimonies among survivors is strikingly reminiscent of Rashomon: there was no one Jonestown, there were nearly a thousand Jonestowns. To portray just one will be to contradict more than 900 others. But they all happened.
Jones himself was a kaleidoscope of paradoxes: A man who repeatedly lamented having ever been born, yet obsessively relocated to areas reportedly safest in a nuclear holocaust; who led a movement notorious for committing “revolutionary suicide,” but who led those same followers the previous year in a demonstration in support of a suicide net installation on the Golden Gate Bridge (finally greenlit just this past summer); who claimed to be the only living heterosexual, yet summoned male congregants to sleep with him; who decried racial subjugation in America, yet packed a lily-white inner circle; who preached socialism as an egalitarian credo, yet ensured his elite staffers were more equal than others; who militantly forbade drug use by members, yet was a walking chemistry set on his own time; who would laugh and joke with you one hour, and oversee the tenderizing of your flesh with the “board of education” another.
I would venture that it was largely his dominatrix-like nature that was most spellbinding. A disingenuous film would take the easy route in depicting only Jim the Tyrant. Problematic is its corollary: that his followers could therefore have only been unthinking and easily duped, or wittingly diabolical. Neither is true. Peoples Temple consisted of doctors, attorneys, teachers, and professionals of numerous respected fields. Its living veterans include some of the brightest, kindest individuals I have met. Jim’s coterie was orbited by First Lady Rosalynn Carter, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, civil rights activist Angela Davis, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (who named Jones to head the Housing Commission), future mayor Willie Brown, Supervisor Harvey Milk, and then- and current-governor Jerry Brown. A rightly-dignified depiction that pays Temple members due reverence must endeavor to bewitch its own audience with Father Jim’s magnetism.
And circling back to the unfortunate catalyst of my first knowledge of Jonestown: The careless appropriation of “Kool-Aid drinker” – commonly in political contexts by both right and left, from Fox News host Bill O’Reilly to White House advisor John Podesta – can most efficiently be expunged by culturally stigmatizing the stigma itself. An effective film would startle the layman’s complacency toward this chapter of history, such that the next time he finds the term “Kool-Aid drinker” on the tip of his tongue, he first hears the fatally-futile cris de coeur of Christine Miller on behalf of a thousand lives, the screams of one-year-olds tasting grape-flavored death, the moans and gasps of mothers and daughters interlocking arms as cyanide careered through their bloodstreams, and the faces of family members days later, seated among empty chairs at Thanksgiving dinner.
On the morning of November 19th, 1978, 909 American bodies lay scattered at ambient temperature beneath a placard reading “Those Who Do Not Remember the Past Are Condemned to Repeat It.” This visual, so hauntingly recent and immutably American, is foreign to most in my generation. Perhaps it’s time to take the hint.
(Christian Hartsock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)