If you live in or truly love San Francisco, you’ve seen The Times of Harvey Milk. Rob Epstein’s 1984 movie is one of the best nonfiction features ever made. It’s also one of the greatest movies about this city. Only time will tell whether Stanley Nelson’s new documentary, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, is a work of similar importance, but the fact that I’m even mentioning it in the same context as Epstein’s movie says something about the reserved precision of its journalistic reasoning and the overwhelming emotional force of its finale.
Of course, there is another reason to connect Jonestown and The Times of Harvey Milk. The murder of Supervisor Milk and Mayor George Moscone by Dan White took place 10 days after the deaths of Jim Jones, Congressman Leo Ryan, and more than 900 members of Jones’s Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, on November 18, 1978. One tragedy claimed the life of a man who was already a civil rights hero, while the other led mainstream media and true crime sources to portray a human being as a monster. Just as Epstein’s movie profoundly humanizes Milk, Nelson’s movie digs beneath stereotypes of pure evil to reveal a different Jones than the one used to sell quickie television and paperback biographies.
Twenty-eight years later, the tragedy in Guyana and the Milk-Moscone murders still have an effect on San Francisco politics: In very different ways, they represent the death of progressive, district-based local activism and its afterlife. (Garrett Scott, codirector of the superb documentaries Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story and Occupation: Dreamland, was in the early stages of making a movie about the two events and their relationship to SF politics when he died earlier this year.) It seemed appropriate to have New York native Nelson discuss his movie with a contemporary political figure whose knowledge of local history runs deep. On the eve of Jonestown’s screenings at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, former San Francisco mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez agreed to interview Nelson about the roads leading to the cataclysmic events of 1978 and the roads leading away from it.
MATT GONZALEZ I want to start by saying I had a typical impression of Jim Jones as a cult leader whose message was a hustle to get people into his church so he could take advantage of them when they were vulnerable. The thing that jumped out immediately to me in this film was that the fundamental part of his message throughout his ministry was this idea of racial integration and equality. The main component was there at the beginning, and in a place like Indiana, when Indianapolis was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold. It made me rethink and see him as someone who exhibited a certain genuineness and courage at that time.
Did that surprise you about him?
STANLEY NELSON The depth of his commitment surprised me. During one of the anniversaries of the deaths in Guyana, I heard some Peoples Temple members talking about it on [the radio]. I started thinking, "This involved over 900 people — all these people weren't crazy. So what was it that drove them to the church?"
Research made me realize that there was something much deeper going on and that this was a real political movement for a lot of the time the church was in existence.
MG Jones had been a member of a human rights commission out in Indiana. That also underscores a very self-conscious relationship between his church and what was happening in society.