Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple

"Excellent"

Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple Review


One can make plenty of cases for the moment when the '60s died. Some claim Altamont, while others go with the Manson murders. But even though it came well after the decade was dead and buried, the 1978 mass suicide in Guyana by almost the entire membership of Jim Jones' Peoples Temple marked, if not the death of the Sixties, then the death of the idea of the Sixties. Never again would the idea of a large, interracial, revolutionary, spiritually-minded and liberal social experiment of this sort seem anything more than a cult bound, sooner or later, for self-annihilation. As shown in Stanley Nelson's compassionate and sobering documentary, Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple, Jim Jones killed the commune.

Taking a page from the "Stranger than Fiction" book, Jones started out in resolutely un-revolutionary Indiana, making waves as a barnstorming white Pentecostal preacher whose style was best described as... "black." His message of social justice riled more than a few feathers in the stolid communities where he preached it (especially given how they were trying to keep such societal changes of the 1960s at bay), most especially for the fact that he was quite vocal in his desire for integration, especially at his church. Jones didn't just preach it, he lived it, with he and his wife becoming the first white couple in the history of the state to adopt a black child. Not long after that, Jones and his people did what open-minded folks of the time did: they lit out for California. There, in a bucolic valley in the north of the state, the members of Jones' increasingly political (bordering on revolutionary) "People's Temple" practiced communal living that seems to have been, for a time at least, the blissful apotheosis of everything many thought the '60s were all about.

Given that all most people remember (if anything) of Jones and Jonestown is something about a nutty cult who all killed themselves by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid, Nelson's film is worthy at the very least for telling the whole story, especially its racial aspect. A heavy amount of '60s rhetoric involved race, but normally it seemed to be talked over a divide: privileged white radicals expressing their admiration for Black Panthers, even though the counter-culture tended to be as racially segregated as straight society. Jones' fervent desire for racial equality was -- oddly enough, given the era's penchant for empty sloganeering -- surprisingly successful. The People's Temple members who appear on screen in the film are truly a mixed lot: black senior citizens happily working and playing alongside white hippies as though an entire history of ugly segregation had simply ceased to exist. It's a sign of how intoxicating such a scene must have been that it resonates today, even with the knowledge of this experiment's horrifying outcome.

Smoothly layering modern-day interviews with Temple survivors amid rare (sometimes previously unseen) footage of Jones preaching and his followers at work, farming and gathering new converts, Nelson lays out with chilling exactitude the group's inexorable slide from brotherly utopia to paranoid and murderous cult. Inexorable because the group was obviously never a church or temple in any real sense, just an extension of Jones' need for an audience, and so predisposed to follow him as he descended through megalomania into outright delusional paranoia.

Convinced that the forces of straight America were aligned against his people, Jones tried to relocate them all from San Francisco -- where, in the mid- to late-'70s, he had become a disturbingly influential political figure -- to the forested interior of Guyana. It was there, in a remote spot that his followers imagined to be paradise (even today, in footage emotionally captured by Nelson, they still seem to have the dream of utopia, to long for the freedom that Jones represented), that a fact-finding mission by a U.S. representative would go horribly awry, and 909 people, including many children, would willingly drink poison. Only five escaped, such was the power of the man from Indiana, who, given his chillingly magnetic persona as rendered on screen here, would be followed by untold thousands, even today.

One is left at the end of the film still asking why, and it's a tribute to the filmmaker that he doesn't try to answer the unknowable. But then, as one of the Temple's members says, "Nobody joins a cult. Nobody joins something they think is going to hurt them. You join a religious organization. You join a family."



Facts and Figures

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5

Cast & Crew

Director: Stanley Nelson

Producer: Kristian Lesko

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