The first time I ever heard of Jim Jones and the tragic events of Jonestown was from the absolutely gripping episode of In Search Of…, a television series that investigated controversial and memorable historical figures, and paranormal phenomena, hosted by Leonard Nimoy from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. The eyewitness accounts and actual news footage taken before and after the mass murder of 909 people on November 18, 1978 at the direction of and orders from their leader, Jones, was disturbing, even more so because it actually happened.
It didn’t take long for a fictionalized account of what went down to be made, entitled, Guyana: Crime of the Century (1979), a Mexican exploitation movie starring Stuart Whitman, Gene Barry and Joseph Cotton. The next year, a classier, more fact-based docudrama was made. Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones was a T.V. miniseries based on Charles A. Krause’s book, Guyana Massacre: The Eyewitness Account and starred Powers Boothe as Jones. It chronicled the man’s journey from devoutly religious child growing up in Indiana to fanatical cult leader in Guyana.
The story begins with Jones (Boothe) testing his followers’ loyalty while Congressman Leo J. Ryan (Ned Beatty) plans to fly down to Guyana and investigate reports that some of his followers are being mistreated and others being held against their will. Jones is told of Ryan’s impending arrival and flashes back to his childhood. This miniseries attempts to dig deep and show his early adoption of The Bible as a way to live his life. It also provides salvation from a dysfunctional household where his strict father (Ed Lauter) abused his mother (Diane Ladd) until she took her son and left.
Jones grows up to be a preacher, standing up to a racist barber that refuses to cut the hair of a little African-American boy. He espouses that everyone is equal in the eyes of God. He is soon put in charge of a struggling congregation consisting mostly of a few elderly parishioners and literally going door-to-door asking people to come to his church. It works and Jones has a racially integrated congregation at a time and in a place where that was vehemently objected to by some.
He eventually forms the Peoples Temple, a venue where he can preach his progressive views. Boothe is excellent in these early scenes as a straight arrow that faithfully believes in religion and its ability to bring everyone together regardless of color. He’s also a great salesman, using his charisma to not only attract people to his church but also get them to contribute financially or donate items. Jones genuinely cares about people, feeding and educating them as well as the community at large.
Jones meets with Father Divine (James Earl Jones), a spiritual leader that believed he was God, and who is doing what he’s doing only much more successful at it. Their brief meeting is a revelation for Jones and shows him a way to build up his congregation: he must develop a bigger personality and be so charismatic that people are willing to do anything and give everything for him. It is the beginning of the Jim Jones cult of personality.
Guyana Tragedy takes the time to show why so many people believed so devoutly in Jones. Initially, he honestly wanted to and did help people but the bigger his congregation got, the tougher it became to do everything he wanted to do. He began to rely on drugs to keep his energy up but he also staged fake faith healings and cheated on his wife (Veronica Cartwright) only to rationalize away these things by saying that he was close to a “vision of life everlasting,” claiming that he was “The Chosen One.”
Anybody who knows anything about Jones’ story knows that everything that happens before Jonestown is prologue, anticipating the centerpiece of the miniseries when Jones and his people move to Guyana and make a go of it, building an agrarian society. It is a disturbing testimony to Jones’ hold on that many people that he was able to convince them to start a new life with him in a foreign country.
The last hour shows how things go from bad to worse in Jonestown. His followers work long, grueling hours while Jones tells them the “news” from around the world over a loudspeaker. The attractive young women are drugged and have sex with him. He then dissolves all marriages among his followers and pairs them up himself. Jones believes he has created a utopia but it’s actually hell on earth.
Powers Boothe excels at Jones’ fiery preaching style, delivering the man’s sermons with a conviction and intensity that is something to behold. During these sermons, the actor adopts a kind of seductive purr in his voice as he woos his congregation and then brings a powerful intensity when Jones gets worked up with his fire and brimstone rhetoric. It is fascinating to see how he works a room in such a dynamic fashion. The actor does a masterful job of showing Jones’ gradual shift in ideology, from idealistic symbol of change to an increasingly paranoid man with a messiah complex. He is absolutely riveting in his depiction of Jones’ descent into paranoid delusions, convinced that the CIA is plotting against and spying on him.
The cast is an embarrassment of riches featuring the likes of Brad Dourif as a junkie that is taken in by Jones and Diana Scarwid as his desperate wife that find salvation with the Peoples Temple. Veronica Cartwright plays Jones’ long-suffering wife that is first to recognize and call him on his changes in attitude and behavior but ultimately remains loyal to him. Meg Foster and Randy Quaid show up in minor roles as loyal employees of Jones’ day-to-day operations that have a change of heart when he keeps their child from them, claiming the boy to be his own. These talented actors enter and exit Boothe’s orbit throughout the show, playing well off of him, helping paint a portrait of a complex man.
Originally, director William A. Graham approached Tommy Lee Jones to play Jim Jones but he was busy filming Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) and was unable to do it. Someone recommended then-relatively unknown actor Powers Boothe who got the part. To research the role, the actor interviewed former Peoples Temple members and watched any footage of Jones that was available. He asked former followers, mostly women, why Jones attracted so many people to his cause: “The answer I heard most was that Jones had more sex appeal than any man they’d ever seen.” Boothe has said that he approached the role as if he was playing King Lear and with his portrayal, set out to avoid the cliché vision of Jones as “a maniacal ogre. Wrong. He was charming, sweet and a fabulous speaker. If someone chooses to take that power, he can lead a lot of lambs to slaughter.”
There was an infamous sign displayed prominently in Jonestown that said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is an important reminder that we cannot let mad men like Jones run rampant. One of the lessons to be learned from Jonestown is that we must be vigilant against cults that are harmful under the guise of helping people in the name of God.
The last few minutes of Jonestown are as harrowing as you’d expect, but ultimately nothing is as horrific as the real thing and that is the problem that all dramatizations of Jonestown face. No matter how faithful a recreation it will always pale to what actually happened as the chilling newsreel footage and photographs of what went down there in that In Search Of… episode powerfully demonstrate. Like any good historical biopic should do, it is a good jumping off point for one to do their own research and dig deeper into the subject if they are so inclined. That being said, this does nothing to diminish Boothe’s powerhouse performance as Jones. He commits completely to the role and brings the man vividly to life.
Patches, Matt. “Q&A: Powers Boothe on Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Deadwood, and His Heavy Career.” Grantland. August 22, 2014.
Scott, Vernon. “The Rev. Jim Jones Haunts Actor.” The Hollywood Reporter. May 27, 1987.
Sheff, David. “An Unknown Actor Re-Creates the Horror of Jonestown and Makes His Name: Powers Boothe.” People. April 20, 1980.