Media Review: Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980)

Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980) available on YouTube 1 and YouTube 2

Movie Background 

Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones is a TV movie that was released just two years after the tragedy that took place in Jonestown, Guyana. The first half of the movie was aired on April 15, 1980, with the second half airing the following day. Total run time for both halves of the film is approximately 192 minutes, or 3.2 hours. Ernest Tidyman wrote the teleplay for the film based off of a book written by Charles A. Krause. Krause’s book, The Guyana Massacre: The Eyewitness Account details his journey to the Jonestown compound and what he saw there.

Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones was filmed in Atlanta, Georgia as well as in Dorado and San Juan, Puerto Rico. In the film, Jim Jones is played by Powers Boothe, a well-known TV and movie actor. Boothe’s portrayal of Jim Jones earned him an Emmy for Best Actor. He is also known for his roles in Sin City (2005) and the Avengers (2011). Another well-known actor in Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones is Ned Beatty. Ned Beatty plays Representative Leo Ryan in Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, but is also known for his roles as the Mayor in Rango (2011) and Lotso in Toy Story 3 (2010). Celebrated actress Irene Cara also appears in the film as Alice Jefferson.

The song “Welcome” that the choir sings is taken from a recording of the actual Peoples Temple Choir. The dialogue used in the mass suicide/murder scene near the end of the film was taken almost word-for-word from a cassette found in a portable tape recorder under Jim Jones’ chair.

The Films Portrayal of the Concerned Relatives

Overall, the concerned relatives were portrayed as a group that was worried about what was happening within Jonestown. They thought that their relatives were being held by Jim Jones against their will. As Guyana Tragedy continues, Leo Ryan expresses his concern and interest in figuring out what is going on in Jonestown. His interest seems to be sparked by the concerned relatives and interviews with these relatives. From what we know now, concerned relatives did meet with Congressman Ryan, providing him with some motive to go to Jonestown and see what is going on.

Throughout the film, Jones is portrayed as a big opponent of the concerned relatives. He calls them mercenaries who are out to destroy Jonestown. This can be considered as an accurate comment, as Jones truly felt attacked by many outside forces while in Jonestown (the CIA and FBI were two big “attackers”). In Guyana Tragedy, Jim describes the incoming group with Leo Ryan as warriors of hatred descending upon Jonestown. It can be said that he is not only angry with the concerned relative group, but fearful of what they might do to his community.

Guyana Tragedy provides its viewer a good portrayal of the concerned relative group. We know that they were a group that wanted to be sure their family members were not held against their will within the Temple. While Jim viewed them as an enemy of the Peoples Temple, they felt like Jim was being manipulative. Throughout this film, the viewer gets a good idea of these previously stated ideas. The directors give its audience an idea of the worry these relatives had, but also the viewpoint of Jones. With no direct stance taken, the audience is able to formulate their own opinion on the group. In general, Guyana Tragedy gives an accurate portrayal of the concerned relatives, allowing its audience to understand the viewpoint of this group.

The Films Portrayal of the Mass Suicide

When the White Night on November 18th was first called, people assumed it was going to be another loyalty test. When they all gathered into the pavilion Jim Jones mentions the shooting of Leo Ryan, stating that he did not tell the members to shoot them, and that he did not plan it, but that he knows it is going to happen. Jones then mentions performing a  “revolutionary act” and encourages everyone to go peacefully without fighting. A woman named Jenny stands up and mentions the idea of moving to Russia and says that she does not want to die. This scene depicted the discussion session that happened during the White Nights to try and find another alternative besides suicide. The script almost perfectly follows the main themes that are apparent throughout the death tape. When people started to drink the poison- some were forced and syringes were used to administer the poison to the young and the unwilling. There was crying and yelling, but other than that the deaths were portrayed as peaceful. People just started to lay in the pavilion to die. Three people were shown escaping- two made it and another was shot while trying to steal a briefcase full of money. The ending of the White Night did not match the actual events of that day. Instead of the inner circle and Jim Jones going to his cabin to die, the woman depicting Annie Moore drank the poison then peacefully laid down with the rest of the people in the pavilion and Jim Jones was the last one to die from a gunshot.

Film’s Reception Among Scholars and Critics

Although this mini-series came out two years after the tragedy, it had mostly positive reviews. Reviewers seemed to think that this movie was an accurate portrayal of what happened in the Peoples Temple. Unlike other Jonestown portrayals, reviewers seemed to think that this was the most accurate representation. Although this was made in 1980 and not many other video productions had come out about Jonestown, this however is still an accurate interpretation of what life was like. The only criticism of the movie was that the characters were dry and one-dimensional. Another critique of the miniseries was not enough background was given on some characters. For example, Larry King (who was modeled after Larry Layton), was not really given a background in the film while we know he was very devoted to Jones and the temple. Unanimously, Powers Boothe portrayed Jim Jones astoundingly.

It is nearly impossible to get every single detail right in a film that’s based on a true story, but critics and reviewers seem to think this film hit the head on the nail (beside some minor character details as discussed earlier). It is said that myths have been created about Jones and the Peoples Temple because of this film, however I have yet to find any regarding these films.

The Films Portrayal of Jim Jones

          The documentary starts out depicting Jones as a child who does not quite fit in. He is shown to have followers that listen to his sermons and help with animal funerals. His father does not seem to understand him, but his mother defends his love for God and prayer. In the documentary, as Jones grows up and meets Marceline, he is depicted as charming and handsome. Jones is also depicted as fighting for equal rights in the case where he takes a little boy to Marcie to get his hair cut because a barber refused to cut a black child’s hair. Jones is depicted as a strange, but motivated child that was isolated because of his arguing parents and his lack of friends. From what we have read, this seems accurate. Throughout the documentary, as he grew older, he was viewed as the successful, young, handsome minister with promise for revival of a church, which is accurate as well.

          The documentary goes through his different stages of being a minister. He began by fighting to bring back programs at somewhat empty church. Then he was shown to progressively emphasize his ability to heal others. He is depicted as manipulating women in Peoples Temple, as well as some men. At this point, Jones seems to be transitioning. The biggest transition point in this documentary was Jones seducing a woman who called him God, by encouraging her to call him God and worship him. Shortly after, his sermons glorified himself as God.

          Eventually, into Jonestown, Jones is depicted as a forceful leader. People in Jonestown do not seem able to leave and even worse, women are further manipulated, as he deems all marriages nonexistent. The last White Night depicts Jones as persuading everyone to drink the Kool-Aid, forcing others to drink.

Overall, the documentary seems to depict Jones fairly, in the sense of giving him his justice in having an initial good cause for social equality, but also having lost his sense along the way. The only instance in the documentary that I questioned was the way in which the persuasion of Kool-Aid drinking proceeded.