The Sacrament, a new suspense film closely based on the 1978 Jonestown massacre, illustrates the extremes to which leftism corrupts and the ends to which its philosophy can ultimately lead. The fictional movie turns out to be more accurate than many documentaries and news articles in its treatment of Jim Jones’s radical left-wing politics — a topic that is inescapable when (honestly) broaching the subject of Jonestown.
The 1978 massacre at Jonestown, Guyana, was the largest mass suicide in recorded history and the largest single-day mass killing of American civilians prior to the 9/11 attacks. Some 909 members of Jones’s “People’s Temple” cult were murdered or (in an unknown but probably large number of instances) were forced to commit suicide by drinking a poison-laced fruit drink. The popular phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” to describe herd mentalities originated with the Jonestown massacre.
Yet the Jonestown massacre itself is only dimly known to contemporary Americans, and the details of the event are often ignored by news and academia. It is, after all, an inconvenient story, in which a Communist community, led by a committed Marxist and ’60s Bay Area radical, came to a horrifying end.
Following the mass suicide, the mainstream media spun the story into one of religious fanaticism rather than leftist fanaticism. Had a right-winger persuaded followers to join him in retreating from society and building their own enclave, then held them prisoner and ultimately persuaded or forced them to take their own lives in some sort of revolutionary act, Jonestown would be taught more widely in schools than Abe Lincoln. Instead, when Jonestown is addressed, the Marxism of the People’s Temple is whitewashed and the story is packaged as one of a religious cult gone awry, or as a warning against the perils of organized religion.
This deliberate obfuscation happened immediately. As a contemporaneous (1978) Accuracy in Media report made clear, “The ideology of Jonestown was communism, not Christianity, but the media have obscured rather than explained that fact.”
AIM explained, “Our media have concealed, misrepresented, or downplayed the key element in the philosophy of Jim Jones,” rightly noting that Jones was, contrary to the misleading media reports, “a long-time dedicated Marxist communist who admired totalitarian communist dictatorships such as the Soviet Union and Cuba so much that he built one of his own in Guyana.”
Even weeks after the event, AIM found there was not a single article in the mainstream press that delved into Jones’s Marxist beliefs and connections. Instead, despite his views and his well-known admiration for Castro’s Cuba and the Soviet Union, reporters went out of their way to avoid labeling Jones a Communist. Some in the media, such as Walter Cronkite, even reported on Jones as a “fascist” — any “ist” as long as it wasn’t a Communist.
Yet Marxist he was, and so was his group. Jonestown life was nearly identical to that in Communist nations: Inhabitants were essentially prisoners (prohibited from leaving the settlement and punished if caught trying to leave); no private ownership of any goods was allowed; no communication with the outside world was allowed; hard labor in the fields was mandatory, as was attendance at Jones’s lengthy, Castro-like sermons; armed henchmen spied on and intimidated others who dared step out of line or complain; family structures were deliberately destroyed, with Jones encouraging adultery or assigning husbands and wives to separate living quarters; residents were poorly fed and overworked, while Jones himself lived in luxury; and, of course, in keeping with Jonestown’s Marxism, there was almost no religious observance, making the media’s description of Jonestown cultists as religious fanatics, over more than 30 years, all the more dishonest.
As for the enigmatic Reverend Jim Jones, who was he? The Indiana-born Jones, a former community organizer, was a committed Marxist since at least the age of 18. (His idol was Mao Tse-tung.) He believed himself to be the reincarnation of Lenin and dreamed of a socialist America. Jones began attending Communist-party meetings in 1951 and was soon a full-fledged radical.
An atheist, Jones cleverly realized, quite early on, that religion could serve as a vehicle to attract followers to his social-justice views and his “church.” Masquerading as a Christian preacher, he ultimately founded the People’s Temple, which grew substantially thanks to followers’ donations. Jones would later readily admit that he asked himself what would be the best method to spread Marxism and decided on doing so by infiltrating Christians and preaching Marxism disguised as religion. In a 1977 New York Times interview, his wife reportedly admitted that Jones was promoting Marxism by mobilizing people via religion, and that he referred to the Bible as a paper idol he must destroy.
A decade after starting The People’s Temple in Indiana in the 1950’s, Jones moved camp to the greener pastures of San Francisco, where he found himself surrounded by fellow radicals such as Harvey Milk, who heaped praise on him and his work. Jones’s leftist views fit right in among the Bay Area glitterati. But upon learning that an upcoming press article was about to report on allegations by former Temple members that they had been emotionally, mentally, and physically abused (the bisexual Jones reportedly even sodomized some followers), the organization fled to Guyana in the summer of 1977, establishing its community abroad, away from prying eyes. Jonestown was comprised largely of committed leftists, many of whom were drawn, for one reason or another, to Jones’s railings against rampant racism, social injustice, and income equality. A few months later, Jones even visited Cuba specifically to meet with notorious Black Panther Huey Newton, returning with nothing but praise for the Communist island.
Lest there be any doubt about Jones’s political views and those of his fellow Jonestown residents, he once boasted: “I believe we’re the purest Communists there are.” When a Soviet diplomat visited Jonestown, Jones gushed: “Thank you, comrade. For many years, we have let our sympathies be quite publicly known, that the United States government was not our mother but that the Soviet Union was our spiritual motherland.”
This was not a church — this was a Communist organization.
The new settlement chugged along for over a year, but cracks began to emerge, particularly as it became harder for Jones to conceal his drug addiction.
Then, in November 1978, Representative Leo Ryan, a Bay Area Democrat, led a fact-finding trip to Jonestown in order to investigate allegations of human-rights abuses. The group included concerned relatives of Jonestown members, an NBC camera crew, and several reporters.
Ryan never returned, nor did four others of his team. They were gunned down at the airstrip when attempting to leave.
Later that day, Jones realized the People’s Church was finished and ordered his followers to end their lives. Cyanide was administered in cups of Flavor-Aid (similar to Kool-Aid) in an act of “revolutionary suicide.” More than 900 Jonestown residents, 303 of them children, perished, their bodies found in and around the pavilion. (Jones died via a self-inflicted gunshot.)
The tragedy is a stain on liberalism, not only because it showed the extremes of left-wing ideology but also because it could have been averted, had it not been for the Bay Area radicals who fawned over Jones. As FrontPage Magazine noted in a 2008 article:
The horrific scene in a Guyanese jungle clearing could have been avoided. Thousands of miles north, for years leading up to Jonestown, San Francisco officials and journalists had looked the other way while Jones acted as a law unto himself. So what if he abused children, sodomized a follower, tortured and held temple members at gun point, and defrauded the government and people of welfare and social security checks? He believes in socialism and so do we. That was the ends-justifies-the-means attitude that enabled Jim Jones to commit criminal acts in San Francisco with impunity. The people who should have stopped him instead encouraged him.
San Francisco heavy-hitters Dianne Feinstein, George Moscone, Harvey Milk, and Willie Brown all supported Jones, with Milk lobbying on his behalf even after he and his followers had fled to the jungles of Guyana.
Precisely due to the clear Marxist ideology of The People’s Church, as well as San Francisco liberal leaders’ support of Jones, the key element of the Jonestown tragedy was brushed under the rug. A story of left-wing extremism instead became a watered-down, politically correct warning about the dangers of organized religion, as is the case in this CNN article that lists Jones as an example of “When religious beliefs become evil.”
Groan. When religion becomes evil, or when extreme leftism rears its true head?
Which brings us to indie horror icon Ti West’s new film The Sacrament. It was with some trepidation that I attended a screening: Would West eschew any mention of Jones’s leftism, as others addressing the subject had before him? Would West blast organized religion as the culprit, rather than Marxism itself? And, darn, why had West made the Jones character a Southerner when the real-life Jones was from . . . Indiana?
The Sacrament is mostly filmed, with some exceptions, in the found-footage style. We initially meet three hip New York males who work at VICE: Jake the videographer (Joe Swanberg), Sam the journalist (A. J. Bowen), and Patrick the photographer (Kentucker Audley). Patrick receives a cryptic letter from his sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), whom he has not seen in years. Caroline, who was once battling drug addiction, now writes that she has found peace and health in a loving community abroad and urges her brother to come visit. Sam and Jake, sensing what could make for a pretty neat story, come along for the ride to this mysterious “Eden Parish.”
With that set, the film takes off. We arrive in the sprawling Eden Parish (an impressive replica, albeit on a smaller scale, of the actual Jonestown), where everyone has their part, does their part, and gets along splendidly. It’s enough to bring Karl Marx to tears of joy. Ranging in age, gender, and race, Eden Parish’s residents boast of what they have built in this egalitarian paradise, relieved of the trappings of poverty, violence, and injustice they thankfully left behind. Soon, we meet “Father” (the Jim Jones character, played by the mesmerizing, scene-stealing Gene Jones). Father is Eden Parish’s founder and leader, and he enjoys utmost reverence and respect. Things soon unravel.
But the big question is: Does the film represent the truth — i.e., Jones’s leftism? The answer is yes, somewhat. While not overtly highlighting Jones’s ideology or that of The People’s Temple, West certainly does not omit it. In a gripping, seminal scene where Sam interviews Father, the ideology is in full view, for anyone willing to listen closely. Father bemoans issues at the top of any leftist’s top-gripes list: “poverty, violence, greed, and racism.” (A majority of Jonestown’s inhabitants were African American — another angle West truthfully represents.)
When Father mentions heroes who have been shot down for “trying to help others,” those heroes are: Malcolm X, MLK, JFK, and RFK. Not all leftists but not all exactly right-wing idols, either. Father’s accent may denote a GOP-lovin’ old-school Southerner, but once he discloses his views, there’s no mistaking him for a Dubya supporter. In perhaps the most poignant line, Father scoffs to Sam, “Now, before you call me a Communist or a Socialist or whatever word you use for someone who tries to help their fellow man . . . ” The line is there because, yes, Father holds exactly those views.
I could have done without the large cross in Eden Parish’s main pavilion (the original People’s Temple, of which West built a very similar replica, had no such Christian trappings), or the religious hymns mentioning Jesus (the odds of such lyrics having been sung at the real Jonestown are slim), or even the word “sacrament” as the title. I reached out to West, who generously replied with an explanation. Cautioning that “the movie only uses parts of what happened in Guyana as a framework, but it’s not technically Jim Jones/Jonestown in the film,” he notes:
Numerous elements of his personality and The People’s Temple are different than in the film. That being said, Jim Jones used religion, mostly Christianity, to lure people in by using their faith to convert them into not believing in a single religion but to see him as their god and have faith in him, and their social and communal responsibilities. Similar approach in my film, and I used Christian iconography because it is the most broad, and familiar and likely the easiest for Father to manipulate and gain the most diverse types of followers. Important to me that audiences easily grasp that religion has been used to manipulate these people. It’s not to pick on Christianity, it’s just, in a way, the most familiar and one of the most commonly manipulated/perverted. . . . Christianity is the most accessible, and where Father’s backstory stemmed from — a lot of which didn’t make the final cut.
While it’s questionable to what extent Jones’s (faux) Christianity, rather than his rants against social injustice, actually lured in Jonestown residents, West certainly deserves praise for bypassing the easy road (misrepresenting the People’s Temple strictly as a religious community and omitting any indication of Jones’s leftism).
Father quotes Scripture in the film but, if one notices, only to the extent that it can be distorted for his social-justice arguments. Jones did the same, quoting Jesus Christ and Scripture only as red meat for his socialist sermons. Though West stops short of overtly representing the People’s Temple as an outright Communist group, the film also does not fall into the politically correct trap of representing it solely as a religious one — no small feat considering this is the common, albeit flagrantly dishonest, Jonestown narrative.
And sure enough, Hollywood Reporter’s review describes the film as a “bone-chilling genre piece about religious fanaticism taken to deadly extremes.” Other viewers may prove more adept at reading between the lines to see where the film truly draws on history.
Jonestown’s most accurate description to date is by way of an indie-film director and not the news networks? Who would’ve thunk it!
The Jonestown tragedy culminated with hundreds of Americans literally “drinking the (cyanide-filled) Kool-Aid,” because they had already gulped down the figurative Kool-Aid. Audiences can and must come away from the movie with a warning about the perils of group thought.
That is a worthwhile message to impart… . . . even if it is an inconvenient story for the Left.
The Sacrament (rated R) is now available for rental on Video on Demand, Amazon, and iTunes. It hits theaters on June 6. For more information, see http://www.magnetreleasing.com/thesacrament/.
— A. J. Delgado is a conservative writer and lawyer.