The Rev. Jim Jones‘ journey to the Promised Land turned out to be a dead end – a mass murder/suicide in Guyana that took more than 900 lives.
Although Jones’ sick tale is familiar, filmmakers Stanley Nelson, Marcia Smith and Noland Walker have produced a riveting documentary about it.
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple is a 90-minute film that will be shown at 9 p.m. today on UNC-TV as part of the American Experience documentary series. Jonestown features photographs, archival footage and audiotape of Jones’ early days in Indiana through the cult’s last gasps on Nov. 18, 1978. Among those interviewed are former Peoples Temple members, including two who escaped from Guyana, and Jim Jones Jr., an adopted son of the cult leader.
Trailer for Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
Jones, born in 1931, grew up poor and from an early age considered himself an outcast. He took an early shine to preaching; a neighbor recalls Jones holding funeral services for cats, including one he apparently killed for the purpose.
He was also sensitive to the plight of blacks, who flocked to his Indianapolis congregation. A backlash from whites persuaded Jones and his followers to move in 1965 to Ukiah, Calif., a destination chosen from an Esquire magazine article that named the town as one of nine in the U.S. that would survive a nuclear attack.
The film includes extensive footage of Peoples Temple services, which won’t be mistaken for a gathering of Episcopalians. Multiracial and vibrant, we hear a first-rate choir singing a hymn called “Something’s Got a Hold of Me.”
Jones was a hypnotic speaker, offering hope and a sense of purpose along with a socialistic economic line. Many members sold their belongings in return for housing and medical care.
Sometimes Jones did the healing himself.
One highly entertaining clip shows a decrepit old woman being coaxed from her wheelchair. “Come forth my dear,” Jones beckons, and up she rises, walking slowly at first and then running. One almost expects a cartwheel.
Yet as one former member says in an interview, the old gal was actually a secretary “made up to look crippled and blind.”
Jones executed a massive bait-and-switch campaign, refocusing his message from the divine to himself, arguing that he could be considered the incarnation of God.
He wore other hats as well, according to several former followers, including bully, drug abuser and sexual libertine.
A former member tells of a congregational meeting in which men who had had sex with Jones were asked to raise their hands. Many did. In another interview, a female follower describes her own sexual encounter with Jones, though not fondly.
Jones rubbed shoulders with prominent politicians, including Willie Brown and Walter Mondale, and was eventually named the chairman of San Francisco’s housing authority. However, press scrutiny forced him to flee to the cult’s Guyana compound in the summer of 1977.
The final segments are perhaps the most captivating, including a chilling clip of Jones inspecting the food supply – black-eyed peas, rice and, inside a black foot locker, Kool-Aid.
Although Jim Jones Jr. says that everyone who went to Jonestown was a “shareholder” in utopia, word filtered back to San Francisco that members were being held against their will. Bay Area congressman Leo Ryan took a small delegation to Jonestown in November 1978. The trip started well, but calamity unfolded quickly, much of it captured on film.
After escaping a knife attack by a cult member at the Jonestown compound, Ryan and his delegation fled to the airstrip, where Jones’ goons opened fire, killing Ryan and four others.
Jones then gathered his flock for a final sermon, insisting that the government would torture all in retaliation. It was time for the final communion.
The audiotape is chilling. Jones cries “Hurry, children, hurry” against a background of screaming women and children. He praises the mass destruction as an act of “revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.” Jones didn’t drink his own poisoned Kool-Aid, though. Instead, he died from a shot to the head.
On Tuesday, PBS Home Video and Paramount Home Entertainment will release a DVD of the documentary that includes deleted scenes and an interview with Nelson. The suggested retail price of the DVD is $24.99.
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