Even Hindsight Isn’t 20/20

Reflections on the documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple

By Susan Starr Sep 15, 2006

“JIM JONES WASN’T WHITE,” asserts one of the Black members of Peoples Temple interviewed in a new film making headlines on the 2006 festival circuit. Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple is a gripping, and at times devastating recounting of the story of hundreds of Black idealists who inexplicably followed the order of a white charismatic faith healer to kill themselves and murder their children in 1978. Although the film’s dialogue contains few references to race, the pictures tell more truth than words alone could contain. Indeed, part of director Stanley Nelson’s genius—he was recognized as such with a MacArthur Award a few years ago—is in letting the story tell itself. He never “plays the race card;” he simply makes it inescapably evident that the deck comes in colors.

There were, of course, many white members of Peoples Temple, a congregation that started in Jones’ hometown in Indiana and relocated to California in part because the climate in the Midwest was so virulently racist and potentially dangerous for the uniquely integrated group. But it was a Black church in its social gospel, its musical culture and its other-worldly focus. Though the ethos of Peoples Temple mirrored in many ways the fundamentalist Protestant “holy rollers” common throughout the Bible Belt in the last century—even sharing some of the same hymns and traditions such as the laying on of hands that more sophisticated white groups had long since done away with—the newly unearthed videotapes used in the film provide a vibrant documentation of how the spirit moves when a congregation uses its hands rather than sits on them. Indeed, that in-your-face joy that no human oppression has been able to obliterate is a hallmark of a church that owes its very soul to the need to believe and testify that the evil of slavery was not and could never be God’s final word.

The paradox at the center of Jonestown is that Jim Jones was white and did devote his ministry to racial justice, at least in the beginning. A huge part of his appeal to Black parishioners was that he knew and proclaimed the racist nature of the dominant culture. Jones took to heart the biblical message to feed the poor, house the homeless, honor the elders and share both the bounty and the sacrifice of community. His began as a fairly typical utopian movement, distinguished from much of that ilk in positive ways. Whereas almost all previous attempts at living for the common good had been racially exclusive and monocultural, Peoples Temple was consciously and deliberately biracial and not dominated by white, middle-class norms. Whereas many of the spiritual and religious countercultures that proliferated in the United States during the same time frame were led by “gurus” who all seemed to deny the importance of the material realm from the back of a Rolls Royce, Jim Jones lived nearly as simply as his flock. As Marcia Smith, award-winning writer of Black America, A Photographic Journey: Past to Present and co-creator of the Jonestown film, puts it, “Jones didn’t just preach about integration and equality, he adopted an African-American son [Jim Jones Jr., featured extensively in the film] and two Asian children.”

“No one joins a cult,” states another survivor interviewed in Jonestown. Her point is that the people who gathered around Jim Jones did not think of themselves as fanatics—nor, indeed, were they. But in hindsight, many of us who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the ’60s and ‘70s were members of a variety of cults. From the hippie communes that managed to maintain class distinctions while dressing indistinguishably from one another to the Primal Therapy we’re-the-only-sane-ones cabals in Marin County, an awful lot of white folks were doing our level best to create physical and psychic distance from mainstream America. And we were just the most visible concentration of counterculturists. Devotees of maharishis abounded all over the states, as those readers old enough to remember being accosted at airports by flower-proferring, saffron-robed, barefooted Hare Krishnas et al can attest. What was startling about Peoples Temple was that, until then, it could have been accurately stated that almost no one Black joined a cult. Jones’ rise to power overlapped, for a time, Martin Luther King Jr.’s leading the progressive faction of the Black church into increasing political engagement, and Malcolm X was making his stand as a prophet of Islam. By the time Jones was a mainstream figure in San Francisco politics, both of the nation’s most powerful Black leaders had been assassinated.

Nelson, who won an Emmy for directing The Murder of Emmett Till (a film credited with playing a pivotal role in reopening the case decades later), remarks, “If there had been another train, they might have taken it.” What were the options in 1975 for an 80-year-old Black woman who needed justice as much as she needed Jesus? What church, what political movement, what counterculture was she supposed to join in order to keep faith with her own best self? Evil rarely presents itself with the horns of a Hitler. For the most part, we are lured into participation by someone who appeals to our highest ideals. False prophets and true ones proclaim the unrighteousness of the world as it is and promise a better way.

But Jonestown subtly provides another insight, should the viewer be courageous enough to discern it. Almost all of us can identify not only with the desire to find and follow a leader who embodies our hopes and dreams, but also with the unconscious longing for a father we can have a childlike dependence on to save us from a frightening world. What Jim Jones and George W. Bush have in common is their ability to convince people that they needn’t wait for divine intervention—their messiah has returned. “You are right,” they both say to their followers, “the world is a bad place, and you are in danger. But fear not, God has sent me to lead you to the Promised Land.”

That is the most profound meaning of this film and the true measure of what Nelson and Smith have created: this story is not about a bunch of crazy people drinking poisoned Kool-Aid long ago and far away; this story is about the depth of our longing for redemption from a society gone mad and the lengths we will go to in order to have hope. By the time we get to the Kool-Aid, it’s too late for most of us to turn back. By the time we can smell the bodies burning in the ovens, it’s too late to save even our own souls. By the time white America comes to its senses, it will be too late.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple will be shown in 2007 on public television’s American Experience, a series produced by WGBH that has a long and proud tradition of airing stories by and about people of color. Plans for a theatrical release prior to the broadcast are incomplete, but the movie’s trailer can be viewed at www.firelightmedia.org along with information about upcoming film festival screenings.