"We didn't commit suicide," Jim Jones gravely intones in an audiotape capturing the final moments of Jonestown. "We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world."
Nearly 30 years after the deaths of more than 900 people in the Guyanese jungle, Stanley Nelson's deeply affecting Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple replays Jones's final, twisted address, setting in motion what the doc tabs "the largest mass 'suicide' in modern history." Using a remarkable cache of vintage footage, as well as candid interviews with Peoples Temple survivors, relatives, and other eyewitnesses, Nelson examines the massacre with a journalist's eye. Why the tragedy happened may never be explained, but seldom before has the how of Jonestown been so clearly delineated.
Long before "drinking the Kool-Aid" filtered into the popular lexicon, young Jim Jones was an ambitious preacher whose ideas about racial equality proved too radical for small-town Indiana. Jones and his wife, Marceline, adopted several children from different ethnic backgrounds; one the few still alive — Jim Jones Jr., who says he was the first African American child to be adopted by white parents in Indiana — appears in Jonestown, as do early church members who followed Jones to Northern California (so chosen because he believed the region would be safe in the event of a nuclear attack). The racially diverse commune was "like a paradise," a former resident recalls; recordings of Jones's uplifting sermons and the jubilant Peoples Temple choir, as well as images of happy farmers, seem to bear this out.
Of course, illusion played a big part in Jones's metier. One of Nelson's coups is footage of a faith healing paired with an interview that exposes the "patient" as one of Jones's (perfectly healthy) secretaries. Various ex-followers corroborate each other's horror stories; one memorable sequence features overlapping testimony about how devotion was measured by sleep deprivation. Jones's sexual proclivities, which contradicted what he preached and involved sleeping with both male and female disciples (whether or not they were willing), are discussed, as is the general feeling of fear and paranoia that increased as Jones gained more control. A "loyalty test" involving a vat of untainted punch is also detailed; a woman who was there surmises that Jones wondered if he was "potent enough to get people to do it."
Jones's ability to manipulate his followers demonstrates the kind of power later echoed by other self-destructive cults. But while Heaven's Gate seemed a little loony from the start, what with the space aliens and all, the Peoples Temple represented itself beautifully to outsiders. The San Francisco political community was especially taken with the energetic, racially diverse congregation; as Jonestown points out, the church could instantly supply masses of well-behaved protestors, as well as influence key elections by voting as a single bloc. On a television talk show, then–California assemblyman Willie Brown deems the Peoples Temple "the kind of religious thing I get excited about."