Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple

Thanks to Jones’ megalomaniacal staging, Nelson is able to present an almost cinema verité vision of the Temple.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


The broad strokes of the story are familiar: Jim Jones, Guyana, the Kool-Aid. But remember the loudspeakers? Mounted throughout his jungle outpost, they broadcast Jones preaching from his control room, sometimes 24 hours a day. It’s details like this that elevate Stanley Nelson’s chronicle of the politically radical cult that ended with the deaths of more than 900 people beyond A&E fare.

Thanks to Jones’ megalomaniacal staging—video cameras and microphones appear to have been ubiquitous—Nelson is able to present an almost cinema verité vision of the Temple, which he supplements with survivors’ accounts. We see it all: the wheelchair-bound woman moved to walk by Jones during a sermon (she turned out to be one of his able-bodied secretaries), the cross-country “Freedom Rides” recruiting trips, the razing of the jungle to build Jonestown.

Former members, even one who recounts being raped by Jones in the back of his bus, recall his charisma and their desperate desire to believe in him. Says one, “Jim was breaking new ground in race relations at a time when the world was still hard against that.” Another recalls her time in Guyana—”I actually believed there was a heaven on earth”—before breaking down and adding, “Now I can’t believe in heaven anymore.”

Their crushed idealism is striking, especially set beside footage of Jones preaching death. “If we can’t live in peace, then let’s die in peace…. Hurry, my children, hurry, hurry, hurry…. Die with death, die with a degree of dignity.” At one point Jones shifts tenses, knowing the tapes would be his testimony: “We didn’t commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”

Most survivors reject that notion, calling Jones’ final act a “slaughter.” Others’ sadness is more equivocal. A woman whose four children were killed circles back to the movement’s potential for creating equality and eliminating poverty. “I’m sad,” she says, “that it didn’t work out.”

The film will have its broadcast premiere April 9 on PBS’s American Experience.

A BETTER WAY TO DO THIS?

We have an ambitious $350,000 online fundraising goal this month and we can't afford to come up short. But when a reader recently asked how being a nonprofit makes Mother Jones different from other news organizations, we realized we needed to lay this out better: Because "in absolutely every way" is essentially the answer.

So we tried to explain why your year-end donations are so essential, and we'd like your help refining our pitch about what make Mother Jones valuable and worth reading to you.

We'd also like your support of our journalism with a year-end donation if you can right now—all online gifts will be doubled until we hit our $350,000 goal thanks to an incredibly generous donor's matching gift pledge.

payment methods

A BETTER WAY TO DO THIS?

We have an ambitious $350,000 online fundraising goal this month and we can't afford to come up short. But when a reader recently asked how being a nonprofit makes Mother Jones different from other news organizations, we realized we needed to lay this out better: Because "in absolutely every way" is essentially the answer.

So we tried to explain why your year-end donations are so essential, and we'd like your help refining our pitch about what make Mother Jones valuable and worth reading to you.

We'd also like your support of our journalism with a year-end donation if you can right now—all online gifts will be doubled until we hit our $350,000 goal thanks to an incredibly generous donor's matching gift pledge.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate