Leonardo DiCaprio is set to play a religious cult leader in the upcoming film Jim Jones.
The 46-year-old Oscar winner is in final talks to portray Jim Jones, the man who orchestrated the 1978 Jonestown massacre.
In what is considered one of the most bizarre events in history, Jones led more than 900 of his followers to suicide in a remote commune in Guyana, where he urged them to drink a cyanide-laced punch. Those who resisted were injected with the poison or shot by armed guards.
The scale and gruesome nature of the deaths would etch Jim Jones into world history, with many books, documentaries and movies chronicling his life and crimes. It had also birthed the popular euphuism, “Don’t drink the kool-aid” which is utilised whenever warning others about blindly following something.
“Before oil, whenever people hear about Guyana, they would think Jim Jones. Now it’s Jim Jones and oil that keeps our name in people’s minds,” said Mary Macedo, a shopkeeper who was a child when the news of the Jonestown’s mass suicide spread across Guyana.
The West’s fascination with the events was once again rejuvenated when it was announced recently that Leonardo DiCaprio will be playing Jim Jones in an upcoming movie. This is not surprising, as the story of Jim Jones does make for gruesome entertainment.
A popular Pentecostal preacher in the 1960s, Jones became well followed by many African Americans and other minority groups based on his gospel of social justice and inclusion. Jones would set himself apart from other white preachers by railing against racism and capitalism, setting up the Peoples Temple as being a Mecca of equality. This message of inclusion, bolstered by Jones fake faith healings he began to perform, would see his numbers growing from one hundred to thousands. However, as his reach grew so too would his paranoia, drug dependency and brutality.
Jones biological son, Stephan Jones stated: “His message was incredibly violent as time went on. And it was erratic. “If we weren’t having an open meeting where he was trying to bring in new members, we were having closed meetings where he was trying to control the members.”
While Jones would preach about abstention from sex and was against homosexuality, publicly shaming any follower caught engaging in either; Jones was not a follower of his own mission. In 1973 he was arrested for lewd conduct at a Los Angeles movie theatre and he was also known to have sex with his male and female followers, even while claiming that he was the only heterosexual on earth.
When questions regarding the sexual, physical and mental abuse happening within the Peoples Temple would reach the public, Jones would convince his followers that they needed to flee to Guyana.
Jones had previously purchased 3,800 acres of isolated land in the jungle from the Guyanese government. Less than a year after following Jones to Guyana, most of Jones flock would be dead. “He was a predator who had really mastered the art of luring people from every segment of life,” said former Peoples Temple member Yulanda Williams.
While followers initially felt like the move to Guyana was a good one, where they would be able to work, sustain themselves and thrive, the reality quickly set in as they were forced to work long hours, fed insufficient and unhygienic food. Against this backdrop, Jones addiction to pharmaceuticals was getting worse and anyone who questioned him faced severe beatings and other punishments. In a foreign country, with their passports taken away and all their money handed over to Jones, anyone thinking of escaping was trapped.
In May 1978, Deborah Layton Blakey, an aide close to Jones would escape to Georgetown and seek refuge at the American embassy. Blakey stated that Jones would broadcast ranting sermons on loudspeakers for hours at a time, consumed by conspiracy theories about the US government, defectors and concerned relatives.
“White night” events were held almost weekly, where Jones would declare a crisis about the compound’s safety. Once, Jones shot himself to make it seem as if the CIA was trying to assassinate him. This was done not only as part of Jones paranoia, but also to explain away the poor living conditions in Jonestown as he argued that the CIA was holding their food and clothing supply in order to keep them from being self-sufficient.
Laura Johnson, another survivor of Jonestown who had left in October 1978, stated: “Jonestown wasn’t set up for so many people. We were 1,000 and we were not self-sufficient. So Jim Jones was feeling the pressure. His drug addiction and his personality disorders were getting worse. He was less and less able to function.”
When news about the situation in Jonestown began to reach the ears of officials in the US, through former Temple members and worried family members who had not heard from their relatives, Congressman Leo Ryan was prompted to visit the jungle encampment in November 1978. Jones and his followers would put on a great show for Ryan and his team despite initially being very against his visit.
When Ryan was scheduled to leave, he informed Jones he would be taking some persons with him who indicated they wanted to leave. Jones agreed to let them go, but when they checked out of the settlement, Ryan along with four other people were shot to death by Temple gunmen at an airstrip.
Guyanese businessman Gerry Gouveia, recalls that event. As a young pilot in the military, Gouveia was one of the first on the scene. “The priority was to evacuate the wounded from the airstrip and then we went back for the bodies, but we still had no idea about what was happening in Jonestown itself,” he said.
It was following those murders that Jones would command his followers to drink the punch, encouraging them to give it to the children first, stating that if they didn’t, the Guyanese military would come to take their children away. Jim Jones was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head. Long before that night, however, Jones would regularly have his followers drink what they believed as poison, as a test of loyalty to him, which was a rehearsal for the actual event.
According to CNN Presents: “Escape from Jonestown,’ as early as 1976, the Jonestown camp began obtaining a quarter to half a pound of cyanide each month. This was long before most of the Peoples Temple followers moved to Jonestown, indicating that the mass suicide activity was long planned.
While the US would attempt to have the bodies interred on site, the Guyana government refused, and the US military along with the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware had to receive the dead. By the time of their arrival, the bodies were disfigured and rotting due to the hot climate. The events of that period have long etched itself into the memories of many Guyanese and others around the world, but as time moves on, more and more persons are moving away from the story due to the negative connotations it has brought around Guyana.
Wilfred Jupiter, a laborer who helped clear the land and build Jonestown in the 1970s believes however, that this should not be the way to go. “We should make sure it’s not forgotten by the young people. They should know what can happen,” she said.
The Jonestown Massacre remains the biggest mass suicide in American history and one of the most harrowing events the world has ever witnessed.
The film will detail Jones’ influence as a religious leader before rejecting traditional Christianity and claiming to be God himself.