Jones, a white man who spoke in a black Pentecostal voice, was a child on the outside looking in, according to his adopted son, a black man named Jim Jones, Jr. Jones Sr. had a vision of a rainbow family and a rainbow church, but his early vision was in the Sixties, so his idea of red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight did not fly, in actuality, in that time or place. He moved to California. He moved again and he gathered momentum, and somewhere along the line, what began as a social movement that was colorblind became a cult, a cult where he took old black people's pensions in exchange for taking care of them as elders in his community. What began as an experiment in giving the outcast a place in a caring society became a harem for him to practice sexual domination of both genders.
Once the San Francisco newspapers began investigating the People's Temple, Jones shuttled his people to a compound in Guyana that they had cut out of the rain forest. And on November 18, 1978, he convinced more than 900 of them to die; he killed himself with a gun.
Quinn divides his documentary into three parts: Jones' early life in Indiana from 1931-1965, the time in Ukiah, California, 1965-1974, the three years in San Francisco from '74 to '77, and the final year in Guyana. He overlays Jones' voice onto photos of him as a child and onto film of him as a preacher in a shiny robe. He overlays the voices of witnesses as they observed Jones' decline into drugs and paranoia over images of a Jones, hidden behind sun-glasses.
The film moves dramatically because of the historical irony of watching his good days and his bad days, his good and bad ways, knowing how it's all going to end. There is no way to watch without being disturbed, especially if you've seen Jesus Camp or Alexandra Pelosi's documentary about evangelicals, currently showing on HBO. Jonestown is a cautionary tale, well told and riveting. Jonestown mourns the dead, but it warns the living.