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Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 30, 2022

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple


Featuring Jim Jones, Deborah Layton, Marshall Kilduff, Tim Reiterman, Jim Jones Jr., Tim Carter, Stanley Clayton, Hue Fortson Jr., Neva Sly Hargrave, Claire Janaro, Juanell Smart, Jackie Speier, Mike Touchette and Leo Ryan.

Written by Marcia Smith.

Directed by Stanley Nelson.

Distributed by Seventh Art Releasing. 86 minutes. Not Rated.

The legacy of Jim Jones is so horrific that the world has had to look at it sideways just to digest and deal with it. In the nearly thirty years since the tragic mass suicides of Jonestown, Guyana, the occurrence has almost become trivialized. Maybe as a way to deal with the horror of what happened, the legacy of Jim Jones has become the creation of a cliché (when someone follows something blindly, they are said to be “drinking the cool-aid”) and a joke rock band name (merged with the late Rolling Stones guitarist to come up with Brian Jonestown Massacre.)

909 people were killed on that 1978 day in the cult, including US Congressman Leo Ryan, who was just a good public servant doing his job when he unwittingly set the wheels of death in motion. To this day it is the largest mass-suicide/murder on record and yet such a staggering occurrence has not been captured much on film. There are very few documentaries which have looked at the tragedy and one respected TV movie with actor Powers Boothe giving an Emmy award winning portrayal of cult leader Jim Jones.

So, it’s good that documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson (The Murder of Emmitt Till, A Place of Our Own) has finally taken a close, measured look at the events of that horrific day, as well as the life of the movement and the charismatic madman who birthed it. Able to have access to recently declassified government information on the Temple, as well as surviving members who have moved on just enough that they can finally revisit their memories, this is as full a story of what happened we are likely to get.

The film starts off with a very cogent point. No one sets out to join a cult. Nelson is very even-handed about the People’s Temple, showing the ugliness behind the facade, but also showing the beautiful potential which was squandered. In all fairness, these early scenes of the People’s Temple are rather seductive. They show the church as an almost old school southern revival meeting, complete with ecstatic singing, a melting-pot mentality, entertainment and rapture. You can see how people were drawn in.

They really were looking for “heaven on earth” as so many members stated, and for a short time it seemed that they were able to overcome human divides like class, ethnicity and skin color. Nelson does not judge or disagree with these beliefs, although from the beginning the glint of evil as epitomized by the charismatic leader who was stalked by deeper and more hideous demons than anyone ever imagined.

Jones was a young, poor outcast in Indiana who found that he fit in more with the black children than the white. He was fascinated by their old-time religion revivals and embraced them. However, even as a child he came at it from a perverted angle, as shown by a recollection of how as a young boy Jones murdered a house cat just so he could preside over its funeral.

However, with his Elvis-slick looks, his fast-talking God-salesman patter and his inscrutability (he was almost never seen without his sunglasses) Jones quickly built a huge congregation. Jones chose a small town in northern California (which was featured in a magazine article as one of the nine best places in the US to get lost from the rest of the world) to start his own Utopia, eventually becoming powerful enough to have a political office in the San Francisco Department of Housing.

However, slowly, but suddenly, the recollections turn to show that drugs, violence, sexual humiliation, lack of sleep and brainwashing. Peoples Temple had already started working on a new Eden in the South American country of Guyana when Jones was alerted of the inevitable publication of a magazine article exposing the Temple’s dirty secrets. Literally overnight, Jones moved the entire settlement down to Jonestown.

Down there, instead of the peace they looked for, a siege mentality took over. Friends, family, wives, children — all turned in each other. The idea of leaving could be met with humiliation or even death. Jones’ sermons were aired constantly, 24 hours a day, every day. Jones became more incoherent, more drunk and anesthetized and more and more unhinged as the people careened out of control towards their sad date with destiny.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple is not an easy film to watch, particularly the audio and video footage of the final day. It is, however, an important piece of documentary filmmaking and a strong reminder of an unthinkable horror that could very well happen again if the rest of the world looks away.  (10/06)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2006 All rights reserved. Posted: October 19, 2006.

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