Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980)

In the history of American cults, Jim Jones and the People’s Temple tragedy are unlikely ever to be forgotten, despite the decades that have passed since everyone drank the Kool-Aid.  The true story is so outlandish that it’s ideal for a screen representation.  The atrocities speak for themselves, but one thing made Guyana stand out above all else: Jim Jones.  A maniac, insane, drug-addicted, power-mad egotist, Jim Jones was so forceful a personality that he duped thousands.  However, in order for this to work as a miniseries, it needs a strong leading man, a problem because, especially in the later years, Jim would merely sit on his throne and bark orders into a microphone, dynamism be damned.  Luckily, Powers Boothe is on hand (in an Emmy-winning performance) to all but channel Jim Jones.  His performance is what makes this movie so fascinating.  If not for him, he would almost seem like fiction, and bland fiction at that.  The writing is merely functional, but the characterization of Jim Jones so strong, it off-sets any problems.  Let’s face it, cults themselves are all about brainwashing, which in itself is not inherently dramatic as its too internal and psychological, but a pill-popping sex fiend who thinks he is God IS the stuff to propel a miniseries. 

True to genre form, the film starts at the end, with Jim Jones telling everyone to drink the juice as he’s shot, the “enemy” on the approach. 

PSYCH!  It was a “loyalty test.”  No one has been shot and the juice is just juice.  But, it proves how much of a hold Jim Jones (Powers Boothe) has over his followers.  It’s close to the end in 1978 and Representative Leo Ryan (Ned Beatty) is on his way to Guyana to ascertain exactly what’s happening down in Guyana. 

Even as a 10-year old child in 1941, Jim was a bully and a religious zealot.  He’s in charge of leading the funeral for a pet, with only other children watching.  His sermon goes on so long that the other kids get fidgety, but he’s not afraid to smack them with a stick to keep them in line.  Toting around a Bible, he tells other kids they are going to hell.  The only voice of reason against Jim’s fundamentalism is his father, Jim Jones, Sr. (Ed Lauter), who tells him all he’s going to get for egging on the other kids is a beating.  Mama Lynette (Diane Ladd) is more practical, wanting her lazy husband to go back to work.  Jim’s only solace is with Mrs. Kennedy (Colleen Dewhurst), the woman responsible for teaching Jim her version of the Good Book.  “Get out of my way, you Psalm-singin’ little creep,” Jim Sr. tells the boy as his mother plots their escape. 

Eight years later, Jim is fully grown (and ready to be played for maximum bang by Powers Boothe).  Working at a hospital, he meets Marcy (Veronica Cartwright), a nurse.  I don’t know that his tactic is exactly foolproof, because he spews more religion than love, but she’s hooked. 

Jim has a way of turning even the best moments into religious lunacy.  He’s getting a hair cut when a black child walks in for one.  The owner refuses to cut his hair and Jim is furious.  Okay, so far, so good, he’s not racist.  But, he blows it by then damning the owner to hell and spouting off. 

He marries Marcy and then is invited to run a church where membership is dwindling.  At first, he’s depressed at the lack of turnout, but he is hell bent on getting youth involved in the church.  He even goes after the town’s prostitutes, and it works.  Hooker Rosalind Cash believes in him instantly and wants to go to church, but she worries about how the others will look at her.  He tells her to come anyway and she remains fiercely loyal to him, staying all the way through the end in Guyana.  Depressed pet shop owner Randy Quaid decides to come to church just to see how the whites will react to the blacks, but at least he’s there. . The church elders aren’t thrilled with the mixing and goons even throw a dead dog through the window.  He’s fired by the bigots, and decides never again to work for a church with “small minded me with no vision!” 

So, he does what any preacher without a church would do–he goes to the ghetto and starts praying on the rubble.  He finds an abandoned synagogue and turns it into “The People’s Temple.”  Again, so far, so good.  He’s a bit nutsy in his religious fervor, but he wants people of all shapes, sizes and colors.  His specialty is ministering to the so-called lost puppies, overwhelming them with kindness and earning their undying (oops, bad word choice) loyalty. 

As Jim struggles to make a go of it, he visits Father Divine (James Earl Jones), who may actually believe he’s God.  He asks Father Divine what to do about the feelings he’s having for some of the female parishioners.  Basically, celebrate it and help them bring it out. “Mary wasn’t a virgin,” Father Divine notes. 

A medley of all the good Jim does wanders a breakneck speed as a hymn is sung.  The man sure as hell seems a saint at this point, ministering to the poor and downtrodden, worried about each and every parishioner with such passion.  Heck, even I could forgive some overzealous behavior since he’s doing so well.  His wife tells him to delegate and his response is, “does God delegate?”  Ah, that seems like a crack in the plaster.  Does he think he’s God now?  He brings some old-time tent revival shenanigans to his services, healing the sick, though they are actually just his loyal friends in disguise.  Starting to believe he’s God, he feels he has the right to sleep around.  When is wife sees him with a young girl, he says he “has to be all things to be all people.”  That’s a nice excuse that covers just about anything possible.  It’s an all-encompassing tent of free space for him to do whatever the hell he wants.  It seems that any young woman who walks into a room where he’s sitting ends up having sex with him. 

Jim is named to the city’s Human Rights Commission, which gives him the power force the mixing of the races, such as a cute scene where Jim rams his whole congregation into a movie theater flashing his credentials and cash.

He takes in a drug addict to prove he can cure him by holding him in the bed, where it looks a little more touchy-feely than doctor/patient.  He also starts to use drugs himself.  Hidden behind sunglasses most of the time, Jim has officially turned the corner on the way to Nutsville. 

By 1965, things are booming at The People’s Temple so much that they can move into fancier digs and Randy Quaid can propose to and marry Meg Foster.  Randy is unusually sanguine about Jim’s role in his wife’s life.  He’s simply willing to accept it.  As for where all the money is coming from, it’s from the members.  All of the senior citizens sign over their welfare checks or anything else they have.

After having saved Brad Dourif from a life of drugs, Jim makes the moves on his girlfriend Diana Scarwid in the forest using some honey-coated phrases that prove only that he’s horny.  He also still has Brad in his bed and under his thrall.  This last fact has Diana being one of the first to question Jim’s methods.  “He has special needs,” Brad says, after Rosalind tells her sins in the Bible don’t apply to people like Jim who is spreading a special message (his sperm, mostly, because the rest of the message is getting increasingly muddled).  Diana convinces Brad to escape with her, but Jim finds them.  “I saved him and I will not lose him to you, to drugs or to anything else,” Jim declares.  There is one too many of the letter I in that sentence and not enough about religion.  Jim insists that Diana stay in the room while he and Brad get it on.

His speeches are also more about himself than anything.  “It wasn’t God that brought you here,” he tells a packed crowd, “it was Jim Jones.”  He says this before revealing tableaux of lynching and welfare and scary film clips of the atomic bomb.  In essence, he’s scaring his followers into staying in line.  He’s theatrical, show biz, flash and dazzle.  He’s also the father of Meg’s baby, as opposed to her husband Randy.  Every member is his personal plaything. 

Within a few years, Jim has taken his People’s Temple country-wide, busing everyone this way and that and playing to gigantic tabernacles and halls.  Linda Haynes is sent to Geneva to deposit hoards of cash in a Swiss bank and Randy is sent to San Francisco to find a permanent (and huge) base there. 

In 1971, Jim decides to open up in Guyana.  “Bring plenty of money,” he tells Randy.  He buys 3000 acres there and then tells the government that they need special protection.  In other words, heavy artillery.  The government official can hardly say no the way Linda is silently flirting with him.  She’s learned from the master, and after she’s done with him, he’ll allow all of Jim’s needs. 

Super-rich Brenda Vaccaro shows up to see if there is anything Jim can do for her mother, dying of cancer.  Jim snaps that the doctor’s assessment that she’s beyond help, “is a medical myth” and mom is brought in on a gurney during one of his over-the-top prayer services.  Mom is a big watcher of Jim on TV, so she’s ready to believe.  In a bit of outrageous theatrics, he pulls the cancer out of her, although to anyone paying attention, it’s only a piece of raw meet that was in the palm of his hand, the oldest card trick in the world!  But, Brenda believes in him and Brenda happily joins the flock of women who belong to him sexually. 

Mayor Mosconi selects Jim as his Housing Commissioner because he preaches to be a friend to everyone, white and black, rich and poor, gay and straight.  During a service, a lackey of Jim’s finds LeVar Burton sleeping and he’s brought into the aisle to be slapped in public.  LeVar argues that he was up all night painting the nursery, at Jim’s insistence, but Jim says that was only a small thing, that he needs to devote himself fully.  Okay, now they are just bullies.  The next time LeVar falls asleep, he’s flogged.  “This is worse than the Klan, for God’s sake,” his father says.  Oh, and by now everyone in the congregation is calling him Dad. 

LeVar’s father goes to Rep Ned Beatty with his fears, but Ned is skeptical.  After all, Jim is the Housing Commissioner, but he decides to check into everything, including bank accounts.  Jim decides to turn this on his congregation.  “Who is my Judas?” he asks the congregation.  LeVar’s mother, deep into Jim’s teachings, doesn’t even realize it’s her husband, but to teach the family a lesson, LeVar is locked in his painting shed with a lit cigarette and blown up (though he survives, with nary a scratch).  With investigations closing in, it’s time to move to Jonestown, Guyana.  A spirited version of “Down by the Riverside,” excites people so much that they can’t say no.  Once again, theatrics have won the day. 

LeVar does not want to go to Guyana, especially since he’s met a new girl.  His mother is upset because her husband has left.  “The family has never been apart,” she says, the last vestige of her old life still alive in there somewhere.  But, she leaves without LeVar. 

Guyana certainly looks like paradise, but the crops are going to fail because Jim has driven the natives from the land instead of listening to them.  “I will make it happen here with God’s help,” he barks at the government official who is trying to help.  His ego has grown so large that he can’t be bothered listening to anyone.

Indeed LeVar does go to Guyana, with his new wife Irene Cara in tow.  Upon arriving, everyone gives up all passports and travel documents.  No one seems to find that strange.  LeVar finds it strange and he and his wife are not being housed together, but those are the rules.  Jim keeps all of his hens together without any other roosters to get in the way. 

Jim’s nightly new broadcasts are a mixture of rambling paranoia and no-nonsense instructions.  Richard and Irene do not fit in well.  Jim summons Irene.  He drugs her and has his way with her, pissing off LeVar, but LeVar has little choice as Jim outlaws marriage.  His reasoning is beyond wacky: that marriages outside of the church are made of mismatched people and have to be destroyed.  LeVar stands up and objects, so Jim proclaims him a homosexual, which is why his wife came to Jim in the first place (remember, she was summoned and drugged).  Spewing all sorts of anti-gay rhetoric, he works the congregation into a dither enough to put LeVar in a small box for a few days.  He’s not judge and jury.  There’s only one step left.

From San Francisco, Randy calls to tell Jim he’s off the housing commission and that he should return to the states to answer the charges against him.  Naturally, Jim refuses, knowing that’s he’s guilty and will be arrested.  “Is Jim as out of control as he sounds on the radio?” Randy asks when he arrives in Guyana?  His wife says it’s actually worse.  They decide they have to take their son and leave.  Randy tries his best to reason with Jim as Ned Beatty widens his investigation, but Jim has a fit, going through every level of melodrama to defend his position.  Randy wants to take his son back to the US and Jim will not let that happen to “my son.”  He’s manipulated so many minds, the kids follow whatever he wants.  Randy and his wife decide to leave.  Since his wife Meg is being sent to Brazil to deposit more illegal cash, and they decide not to go back.  He calls Ned and begs for his help in order to get his son out of there.  He even asks Ned to go to Guyana to see for himself.  Jim spins this to the faithful as the CIA spending spies to kill him. 

When Brenda’s mother dies, she realizes she’s been had.  Not only did he not cure her mother, but he’s taken her family and money from her.  However, LeVar and Brenda do not add up to much.  Ned, his staff, Diana, Meg and Randy arrive in Jonestown with reporters, but Jim’s minions will allow only the Congressman and his aide, though Diana and Brenda’s husband somehow gets to go too.  They are greeted by a very chipper Veronica, who takes them to his throne.  Brenda launches an attack that Ned can hear, but Jim sweeps her away, saying that she has simply lost her faith.  Veronica shows Ned and his aide around, but of course only the parts that are complete safe to report on.  The whole commune is fed a gigantic meal, something they have never had so far.  “I must admit, Mr. Jones, I expected to come down and see a hell hole,” and says that instead he found a wonderful place.  For crying out loud, Jim tosses in a chorus of kids to sing. 

Some of Jim’s goons see LeVar making moves to perhaps attempt an escape, so they “stash him in the jungle.”  Then there is Brad, who encounters Diana.  He believes that as the cult doctor, he has saved lives and will never leave.  He tells her to stop living in the past and forget him. 

Ned does ask Jim about the financial irregularities and sexual offenses.  Jim has excuses to cover them all.  Jim says he slept with only one woman other than Veronica, and it resulted in his son (Randy’s son, but Ned doesn’t know that).  The way he delivers the speech makes one thing that not only is he acting just the way Ned will appreciate, but that he even believes his own lives by now.  Ned isn’t really buying it and neither is his assistant, who says they need to leave immediately.  Ned tells the whole commune that anyone wanting to leave can do so the next day with him. 

Only a few people actually take Ned up on his offer.  Jim is worried about the lies they will spread and his head of security wants to stop them.  “It’s all over, it’s all over.  I’ve been betrayed…ask everyone to come to the pavilion, I have to talk to them,” he cries to Veronica.  Kool-Aid time!  “Sounds like Dad wants us to have another one of his loyalty tests,” LeVar’s mother says and everyone arrives like sheep.  To hammer in what’s about to happen, the movie shows us hobbling old people and infants being brought. 

Jim gets one last speech to the flock.  “If we can’t live in peace, then let’s die in peace,” he rails to the cheering crowd.  He says that the Congressman is going to be shot (though saying that he didn’t ask anyone to do it–of course not, he’s never to blame).  Suicide is merely a revolution.  When someone disagrees, he says he would rather choose his own time of death, rather than live in torment.  He’s got an answer for everything, no matter how nonsensical it sounds. 

At the airstrip, everyone is killed, the Congressmen included.  A cameraman filmed it until getting shot, but the camera kept rolling.

In Jonestown, the juice is given to everyone.  People who try to refuse are forced.  The bodies pile up, but Jim continues to ramble through his microphone, saying death is better than living with what is to come.  Only LeVar and his brother run into the forest.  Randy and Jean arrive at the airstrip, see the dead bodies and are themselves killed.  Linda tries to run away with the money, but she’s shot too.  With everyone dead, it’s down to Brad, Veronica and Jim.  And yet Jim still pontificates, only now to hundreds of dead bodies.  Finally he too dies. 

Airing this miniseries in 1980 was taking a risk.  After all, it has been only two years since the deaths in Jonestown and the details were still fresh in everyone’s minds.  So, is this sordid calculation?  Perhaps.  But, it’s also riveting storytelling, with Powers Boothe so eerily channeling Jim Jones that one begins to think perhaps Jim Jones lived on a bit longer to inhibit Powers Boothe and make sure his message wasn’t completely dead.

Categories: Historical Miniseries

2 Comments to “Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980)”

  1. Lauren 19 January 2011 at 3:27 pm #

    perfect retelling…i get the creeps every time i see this!

  2. jfmax2000 9 October 2015 at 10:43 pm #

    Pretty Dead On..(By The Way) Lemars Mother’s Name (The Actress)is Madge Sinclaire. And that Wasnt Laver Burton in The Paint Shed That was His Father (Albert Hall) (And Your Missing Some Plurals and Things in There as Well) E for Effort Tho 🙂