Perhaps the scariest and most tragic thing about Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, the extensively researched new documentary by Stanley Nelson, is that it shows the early days of Jim Jones’ infamous ministry. Jones is known today as little more than a lunatic cult figure who led nearly 1,000 people to their deaths in the jungles of South America. But what, you have to wonder, prompted people to follow Jones on his mad exodus? Jonestown shows in sober, chronological detail the growth of Jones’ Peoples Temple movement. The sad and soul-shaking part of Jones’ story is that it started out with such noble intentions, a reminder that no insitution--religious, political or otherwise--starts out with the purpose of doing evil. But, as we have all been reminded time and again, power corrupts. And absolute power? Well, we know the story there.
Nelson, the director of such documentaries as Sweet Honey and the Rock: Raise Your Voice, Beyond Brown: Pursuing the Promise, Marcus Garvey: Look For Me in the Whirlwind and The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords (not to mention a serious booster of the humble colon), handles his latest subject with simple efficiency. Jonestown is your basic talking-head documentary dressed up with some fine historical footage. It’s not a flashy film, but it’s smart enough to recognize that its power is in its story. All Nelson has to do is get it on screen.
He does so by tracking down the (shockingly few) surviving members of the Peoples Temple and allowing them to relate their own personal experiences with Jones and his church. The early days of Jones set the table for what’s to come: Raised by an alcoholic father and an overworked mother in rural Indiana, Jones bristled against his small town’s intolerant views. He found kinship in the Pentecostal church and formed his own interracial ministry in 1961. By the mid-’60s he had migrated to California with a growing band of multiethnic, multigenerational congregants who shared his views on racial harmony, socialist equality and government mistrust.
It’s easy to see what attracted people to Jones. His views on civil rights were pioneering. He even practiced what he preached, adopting several children from different racial backgrounds (one of whom is interviewed here). His ideas on social and economic equality were inspiring. He called for raising children and caring for the elderly in a loving, family-like community.
But, as Jones’ ministry grows, as the ranks of his followers swell into the ’70s, you can see (through the eyes of those who were there) and hear (thanks to some very good audio recordings made at the time) the change in Jones. He goes from brother to father to savior to God at an alarming pace.
By the time Jones begins moving his congregation to the infamous Jonestown settlement in Guyana, audience tensions are high. Everyone knows what happened there. This is the point at which most press and historical coverage kicks in: the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid and the 909 bodies strewn about the clapboard compound. But Nelson doesn’t rush things, he continues to lay out the story methodically. Two Peoples Temple survivors, an aide to Congressman Leo Ryan and a news crew sound technician who came with Ryan to help document his rather casual investigation of Jones’ church are our witnesses to what happened that morbid day in 1978.
Finally, you begin to understand why people would voluntarily die that day. It boils down to a belief in your leaders and a feeling that--even when you know things have gone too far--you are committed to the cause, a cause that started off with the best of intentions. It might have been nice if Nelson had dug a little deeper, actually interviewed his subjects about, say, their current religious convictions. Nelson also misses the opportunity to connect Jones to the larger utopian/apocalyptic movement of the late-’60s. Still, you can’t fault the man for sticking to his subject. By the end, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple emerges as a sharply focused piece of historical reporting, amply demonstrating just how far off course the most noble of causes can stray.