It’s appropriate that Stanley Nelson’s Jonestown is hitting theaters during an election week. Nelson’s thought-provoking documentary investigation into the life and times of preacher Jim Jones raises a fistful of public policy questions that are still knocking around today, almost thirty years after Jones led his San Francisco Peoples Temple followers to the Promised Land and then killed them with poisoned Kool-Aid — questions about organized religion, black-white racial relations, the queasy-making rapprochement between church and state in the United States, shameless vote-grubbing by elected officials, fake populism, the nature of cults, and old-fashioned, fire-in-the-belly, hell-and-high-water demagoguery.
Jim Jones was a handsome cuss. Possessed of Elvis-in-Hawaii looks and the requisite hypnotic stage presence, the poor boy from Lynn, Indiana first made his bones in the soul-saving business, traveling the country tent show circuit. By most accounts he was a little too weird for the Midwest of the ’50s; a friend remembers him as obsessed with religion and death. And churchgoing Hoosiers felt uneasy with so many colored people in the pews. Jones’ special brand of Christianity not only promoted racial integration, but extended into a utopian vision of communal living and faith healing (the latter was a flat-out hoax), with himself at the center. As the ’60s opened up unlimited vistas of social experimentation, alternative belief systems, and the tantalizing notion of free love, he gave up on Indiana and gravitated to a place where people could appreciate him: Northern California.
From his Peoples Temple, located first on a farm in Ukiah’s Redwood Valley and later on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco, Jones preached a freewheeling gospel unusual even for the capital of Flower Power. As described by the numerous talking heads, it was all about unifying the races (the majority of Jones’ flock was black, and his adopted family included two Asians and one African American, Jim Jones Jr.) and promoting a vaguely socialistic type of equality. Jones provided food, housing, and jobs for his congregation in return for absolute obedience. Entire families joined the cause. Senior citizens sold their homes, cashed in their possessions, and deeded everything to the church. Jones’ cult of personality meant a reliable voting bloc and the ability to mobilize busloads of people for any cause deemed worthy.
It wasn’t long before the movement attracted the notice of such pols as newly elected Mayor George Moscone (who rewarded Jones by appointing him head of the San Francisco Housing Authority), state Assemblyman Willie Brown, Vice President Walter Mondale, and even First Lady Rosalynn Carter, all of whom are seen clamoring for Jones’ approval. He had clout downtown and absolute control over his followers, the people who felt left out of the political process. Jim Jones Jr. observes: “When you don’t have anything, you’re a shareholder in Jonestown.” This wasn’t the first example of “faith-based initiatives,” but the footage drives home the irony of Jones’ murky, touchy-feely appeal — it was all based on surface appearance. The politicians didn’t know the first thing about him.
Former Peoples Temple members come forward for Nelson’s camera with strange tales. There was always an undercurrent of paranoia in Jones’ message, and one never knew exactly what was going on behind the shades he always wore. Favored females got invited to the private room at the back of Bus Number Seven. One man remembers being drawn aside by Jones, who whispered in his ear: “I can fuck you in the ass if you want.” By the 1970s, Jones, like Elvis, was taking drugs and messing with the minds of his worshippers, who seemed mesmerized by his crude populist promises of a better life. From glimpses in the documentary, Jones’ pulpit oratory seems standard-brand sanctified soul-shouting, scarcely compelling enough to justify the hold he had on his followers, but it is clear that in exchange for the “place of refuge” the temple offered, the “Comrade Leader” extracted humiliation, money, sex, and ultimately the lives of his adherents. In 1977, a New West magazine article exposed the financial shenanigans, physical abuse, and druggy degradation at Peoples Temple, and once again Jones lit out for the territory — this time the jungles of Guyana, where he founded a colony he called Jonestown. Almost literally overnight, his flock followed by the hundreds, families and all.
Anyone who has ever seen newsreel shots of the dozens of fallen bodies, bloated in the tropical sun, lying in the Jonestown compound on November 18, 1978 remembers the image clearly. Nelson’s account, with terrific archival footage and the sorrowful testimonies of the survivors, is now probably the definitive version. Among the witnesses is state Senator Jackie Speier, who, as an aide to Congressman Leo Ryan, traveled to Jonestown to investigate. At least two reporters were with Ryan and Speier when they were attacked on the Jonestown runway by armed guards trying to prevent them from taking disaffected Peoples Temple followers aboard a plane. Ryan was shot and killed, and a few hours later, 909 men, women, and children were murdered (“We’ve got to go. We’ve got to get out of here, go to sleep”) in a forced suicide. The soundtrack is an audio tape of Jones urging his faithful to follow orders and drink the Kool-Aid. Years before, Jones had rehearsed just such an event at the Temple in San Francisco, handing out drinks en masse and then informing his flock it was poison after they’d finished them, as a loyalty test. Several people fainted, and Jones then admitted he’d lied about the poison.
Ultimately, Jones proves as unknowable as Pol Pot or the Branch Davidians. No one, it seems, ever got close enough to penetrate past the shades — or lived to tell the tale. “Everything was plausible,” says one survivor, “except in retrospect the whole thing seems absolutely bizarre.” Jonestown, a fascinating portrait of folly and power, debuted in the Bay Area last April at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and is now playing Landmark’s Shattuck in a one-week engagement, beginning Friday, November 3. Nelson and Jim Jones Jr. will speak to audiences November 3 and 4. For details: LandmarkTheatres.com