If you've ever heard the phrase "don't drink the Kool-Aid" it's because of Jim Jones, a spiritual leader who poisoned his followers with Flavor-Aid laced with cyanide. November 18th marked the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre, in which more than 900 people committed mass suicide, coaxed by the charismatic but deceitful preacher. On Sunday November 18th, Sundance TV commemorated the tragedy in a docuseries executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Davisson (The Revenant, The Wolf of Wall Street) called Jonestown: Terror In The Jungle.
The series airs as a 2-night event in 4 parts, uncovering a terrifying story through archival footage, interviews from survivors, and unreleased recordings and photographs taken by Peoples Temple members and previously classified FBI documents.
The story of Jim Jones' life provides the viewer with an entrée into his troubled psyche. The self-declared socialist believed in the idea of communal living, but also had a dark attraction to fame and craved the attention of anyone willing to give it to him. He was mesmerized by the teachings of Adolf Hitler and the way the dictator's audience hung on his every word. Though Jones was a recluse who mostly kept to himself, he was intrigued by men of power.
Jonestown: Terror In The Jungle doesn't have to paint a picture of how corrupt Jim Jones was. He reveals himself through documented recordings and photographs, constantly cheating on his wife Marceline and physically abusing members of his congregation. Additionally, his disturbing drug abuse was known to many and there are recordings of him speaking over his megaphone to the Jonestown residents with slurred, incoherent speech. In his later years, his weight gain and aging skin perfectly illustrate the toll the narcotics took on his body. Although he's known for his aviator sunglasses, he only wore them to hide the redness in his eyes from lack of sleep and incessant drug use.
The docuseries touches on several of Jones' other methods of manipulation as well, from fake faith-healings to stealing money from patrons and donors to keep the church afloat. Towards the end of his life he trained his followers to practice the act of revolutionary suicide if for any reason things went south.
In order to cast a clearer light on Jones, the docuseries also depicts interviews from Jim Jones Jr, Jones' adopted son (one of the first African-American children ever to be adopted in the state of Indiana), and Jones' only biological child Stephan Jones. Both children of the Jones family are frank about their feelings towards their father and agree that he was a swindler and a cheat. Throughout the series, the brothers don't hold back about their father which makes for some pretty provocative interviews.
Congresswoman Jackie Speier — who was wounded by a gunshot the day of the siege at Jonestown — also speaks candidly about her experience visiting Jonestown with Representative Leo Ryan, who was fatally wounded during the trip. Ryan was led to investigate what was happening at Jonestown when several former People's Temple members started speaking out against Jones. Many former members believed that Jonestown residents were being held against their will.
The intentions of having a multicultural community of people who can look beyond social status, race, and gender seem promising, but many of these marginalized groups of people were taken advantage of because they were so heavily oppressed. Although it's not mentioned in the docuseries, it should be noted that black people made up approximately 70% of Jonestown's population. 45% of Jonestown residents were black women. Jones preyed on groups of people who lacked opportunities and saw the People's Temple as a beacon for social change.
Jonestown: Terror In The Jungle is an eye-opening account of what happens when leadership and religion are twisted in such way that they allow people with sound minds to do incredibly dangerous and unexpected things. The docuseries expands on how grotesque Jones truly was. It makes one wonder, in the age of social media, if Jim Jones could have had the influence he had in Jonestown. Would Jones use Twitter and Facebook to create a more international message? Would the media treat him like a charismatic character rather than a dangerous charlatan, emboldening him by giving him the attention he wanted? One thing's for certain: history often finds bizarre ways of repeating itself, and groups of people will always sheepishly follow charismatic leaders hoping somehow or another they will be helped. It's almost impossible not to see parallels between Jonestown and our current political climate.
Jonestown: Terror In The Jungle aired on Sundance TV Saturday, November 17th at 9p ET / 8p C and Sunday, November 18th at 9p ET / 8p C it is available now on Sundance TV online for streaming.
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