Sippin’ the Kool-Aid

A documentary looks at one of the most famous mass suicides and its drink of choice

Michael Garberich

In a film that’s packed with perversities, “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple’s” most scolding is the finely calibrated sense of consensual corruption of peaceful, idealistic people by the malignant demagogue, Jim Jones.

Jones established Peoples Temple in his home state, Indiana, in the 1960s, moving it to San Francisco, then the Redwood Valley and finally to Guyana, South America, where on Nov. 18, 1978, cornered and panic-stricken, he organized the notorious mass suicide with cyanide-poisoned Kool-Aid.

“Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple”
DIRECTED BY: Stanley Nelson
RATED: Not rated
PLAYING AT: Oak Street Cinema, 309 Oak St. S.E.

“Jonestown” is largely composed of interviews with former members of Peoples Temple or their relatives. The interviews are a collection of staggering, clairvoyant hindsights that naturally beg to question how so many could follow a man of obvious madness. Yet, even on screen, nearly 30 years later and fully aware of his beguilement, the archival footage of Jones visiting the elderly and providing them homes in a community, of denouncing racism, of preaching equality for all castes still has its seduction, for it appeals to the most vulnerable subject: the outcast.

The film shows that many of the members of Peoples Temple lay outside the mainstream of society. It evokes the level of tension present in a time of silent segregation following the wake of the civil rights movement, amid the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. From an audiotape of Jones, we learn about his early sympathies with minorities; he once ran away from home because his father wouldn’t allow him to bring a black friend into their house, and he boasts of being the first white person to adopt a black child in Indiana.

Early on, his training as an articulate Pentecostal preacher seems an appropriate foundation on which to establish a communal lifestyle in the recently defunct hippie tradition.

But the savvy ideologue is quickly revealed for the promiscuous, demented megalomaniac that history remembers: a man who announced that he was the only heterosexual on the planet and offered (and forced) himself to men and women of the commune, who recorded paranoid messages of government conspiracy and played them 24 hours a day over loudspeakers.

Responding to the pressure of a damaging article to be printed about him and Peoples Temple, Jones rushed his followers to Guyana, where some members had constructed a village. By this point, Jones’ paranoia was at its peak, and his rhetoric of loyalty silenced all dissenters who might have wished to escape.

Then, on Nov. 17, 1978, California congressman Leo Ryan traveled to Guyana with a team of reporters to investigate Jones and Peoples Temple. Toward the end of his visit, footage shows frantic members expressing their wishes to leave with Ryan, and the ostensible Utopia that Jones had created was unveiled, his cloistered reigns of totalitarianism loosened.

On Nov. 18, Ryan and his team were attacked on the airstrip while they prepared to leave. He and four others were shot and killed. Fearful of the ramifications, and under the pretense of “(dying) with a degree of dignity,” Jones orchestrated the communal death as “an act of revolutionary suicide protesting an inhumane world.” The chilling events are narrated by interviews with survivors and photographs of the aftermath.

Today, the horrific fate of Peoples Temple might seem distant from our contemporary culture, and so we regard it with detachment. But “Jonestown” is a tragic exploration of people longing for a dignified leader who shares and upholds their sympathies, and no society is free of that desire.