(RNS) The facts haven’t changed in 38 years.
On Nov. 18, 1978, more than 900 men, women and children died in a South American jungle, lured there by the utopian promises of the group known as the Peoples Temple and its charismatic founder, the Rev. Jim Jones.
Most drank a cyanide-laced fruit drink, either of their own volition or with guns pointed at them. Some, including Jones, were shot. When authorities reached the bodies bloated by the tropical heat, they discovered the majority of the dead were African-American women and children.
This week, a new film marks the anniversary of the Jonestown tragedy with a special screening at the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture. “White Nights, Black Paradise” turns its lens on the black women who followed Jones into the jungle and highlights the role religion — or, as some scholars say, a perversion of it, because while Jones was a Disciples of Christ pastor, he frequently derided the Bible — played in their loyalty to him.
“One thing I wanted to pull out was that this was an act of self-determination” for black women who followed Jones, said Sikivu Hutchinson, who directed the film and wrote the book (of the same title) that it’s based on.
“Jim Jones successfully exploited black nationalist and black self-determinist rhetoric and made sure black women stayed in the movement and gave their property and sweat equity into making this leap of faith with him to this ‘strange land’” of the Guyanese jungle, Hutchinson said.
News of the Jonestown massacre-suicide broke before Thanksgiving in 1978. Few people outside San Francisco, where Jones founded Peoples Temple, had heard of the 45-year-old pastor with more than a passing resemblance to Johnny Cash.
The first deaths were the murders of five visitors to Jonestown, including California Congressman Leo Ryan. They were shot by temple members while attempting to board a small plane with a handful of Jonestown residents who said they wanted to leave.
Guyanese authorities soon found those murders led them to the Jonestown compound, where they found men, women and children laid out on the ground in family groups, the bodies several deep. The elderly and infirm had been dosed with poison in their beds. In all, 918 people died, 276 of them children. Thirty-three people survived.
Some of the bodies were never claimed. There are more than 400 Jonestown victims buried in a mass grave in Oakland, Calif.
Several films, popular books, a play and even an opera have attempted to flesh out the events at Jonestown over the years, but few have focused on the specific experiences of its African-American women members. Hutchinson wanted to tease out the reasons so many sold their homes, gave Jones the proceeds, cut ties with their families and boarded a plane to an unknown land with him.
“I wanted all of those threads to be woven in to a reckoning with black women’s agency, their struggle for empowerment and their coming into consciousness by the mechanism of Peoples Temple and ultimately Jonestown,” she said.
While others who have tackled Jonestown through documentaries and nonfiction, Hutchinson, a feminist scholar, chose fiction. “White Nights, Black Paradise” was first published as a novel in 2015.
“I did not feel, even as rich as some of those portrayals were, that they fully explored what compelled black women to come into the movement and stay with it until the bitter end.”
Camille Lourde Wyatt is a Los Angeles-based actress who plays one of those women in the film. It is important, she said, to understand why black women gave up their lives for Jim Jones to prevent a tragedy like Jonestown from happening again.
“I think it was not hard for Jim Jones to mesmerize black women because we came from knowing that a strong faith in God can change our circumstances and situations and black women were seeking that back in the ’70s, and this man said I can change your circumstances if you would just believe in me and follow me,” she said. “So black women said ‘yes’ and they did.”
In the film, Wyatt plays Ernestine Markham, whom she describes as deeply devoted to Jones. Markham is based on Peoples Temple member Christine Miller, who, recordings of the temple’s last hours show, stood up to Jones as others died around her. She perished in the jungle, too.
“My character was that voice that said, ‘We don’t have to do this,'” Wyatt said. “Now we have to be those voices. We cannot let power or authority thwart what we know as righteous and true. That’s what we have to take away from Jonestown.”