Soured utopia

How a mass suicide becomes a cautionary tale

People of a certain age probably remember the washed-out film footage from Guyana of mothers, fathers and children neatly laid out in mud wearing colorful shorts and T-shirts, poisoned from cyanide-laced punch. In many ways, the death knells for '60s counterculture rang three times: For the Manson family killings, for the murders at Altamont, and for Jonestown.

These tragic events signaled a decisive end to the liberal social experiments of interracial, spiritual and politically revolutionary communes. The 1978 mass suicide became the poster child for cult psychosis and a marketing nightmare for the makers of Kool-Aid. It's as iconic a reference as Hitler's goose-stepping armies or villains who twirl their mustaches.

More chilling than many of the horror films coming out of Hollywood today, Stanley Nelson's (The Murder of Emmett Till) compassionate and disturbing Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple is a compelling examination of idealism, naïveté and megalo-maniacal zealotry. Taken within the context of rising Christian fundamentalism and evangelical fervor it becomes a cautionary tale.

Using home movies, photographs, rare archival footage, newly discovered audiotapes and interviews with former members and survivors of the massacre, Nelson presents a spellbinding account of Peoples Temple leader and founder, the Rev. Jim Jones.

A small-town outcast in his native Indiana, Jones identified with poor African-Americans and used his Pentecostal upbringing to forge a racially tolerant Christian dogma with a message of socialism and social justice. Jones unsettled starched-collar Midwestern conservatives by living his doctrine of multi-racial harmony. He and his wife were the first white couple in Indiana history to adopt a black child.

And this is where Nelson's film distinguishes itself, weaving the rhetoric of race, poverty and community into an event defined only by its horrible outcome. Through interviews, footage of church services filled with song and dance, and snapshots of life on Jones' commune in the pastoral Ukiah Valley, Nelson reveals how good intentions and impassioned idealism led to self-deceiving destruction. Film footage of black senior citizens working and playing alongside smiling white hippies is surprising even today, suggesting how little we've actually traveled from the racial discord of the past. To say Jones' socialist message appealed to the '60s liberal counterculture movement — a period marked with profound distrust of the government — is an understatement.

The documentary carefully lays out the temple's slide from brotherly love to psychotic paranoia, as Jones' messianic delusions grow increasingly murderous. Haunting images of him using his sermons to bully and manipulate his congregation are chilling presages to the mass extermination that eventually follows.

Retreating from San Francisco journalists who suspected Jones was abusing members of his congregation, the Peoples Temple fled to the jungles of Guyana and the countdown began. Nelson charts Jonestown's final days with precise and startling video footage as Leo Ryan, a California congressman, travels to Guyana to confront rumors of temple members held against their will. Joyous deception turns to ugly revelation, which, in turn, leads to Ryan's shocking assassination. By the time the poisoned punch is unpacked, it's clear Jones had been planning self-annihilation for some time.

Though Jonestown never finds a bright moment of epiphany, it's a first-rate instance of cinematic journalism and, perhaps, even a bit too short. The profound sadness of these idealistic people of faith being led to their slaughter — the photos and accounts of children fed poison and left to die in their parents' arms — will rattle anyone. Further, recordings of Jones urging the massacre on as grieving families wail in the background play like hell's soundtrack. Heartbreaking, nuanced and disturbing, this chronicle of modern history's largest mass suicide doesn't answer the question of why, but finds deep insight in how dreams of utopia can go so horribly wrong.


Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 29, and at 9:30 p.m on Friday and Saturday, March 30-31.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].