Black Women’s Film Confronts the Whitewashing of Jonestown

April 20 2017

Sikivu Hutchinson Sikivu Hutchinson

For most people, the story of the 1978 Jonestown massacre is simple—a bunch of gullible Kool Aid drinking cultists from San Francisco followed a crazy manipulative white man into the jungle “Heart of Darkness” style and were systematically killed in the largest mass murder-suicide in American history.  For decades, a succession of Jonestown productions, most notably the 1980 TV film “Jim Jones: The Guyana Tragedy”, and countless books authored by white people, have focused squarely on the lethal charisma of the Reverend Jim Jones, leader of the infamous Peoples Temple church which emigrated to Guyana in the 1970s and met a tragic end.  Mainstream history’s “Jones ‘jones’ “ whitewashes the fact that black people comprised over 75% of the church and that the majority of those who died in Jonestown were black women motivated by the utopic promise of a black paradise.  In the turbulence and disillusionment of the post civil rights, post-Vietnam era, Jonestown was supposed to be an antidote to the racial strife, economic inequality and segregation of the U.S.  For black women and black people looking back, one of the profound lessons of Jonestown is that these conditions have only intensified in a nation in the twilight of a black presidency.   

My 2015 novel and new film White Nights, Black Paradise is a corrective to the erasure of this history.

I decided to produce, write and direct a short film treatment of the novel with an all-black crew and predominantly black cast of insanely talented actors out of frustration with the parade of white savior/redeemer/villain representations of Jonestown.   The short film will be a springboard for a feature length treatment.  Over the past few decades, films like Cry Freedom, Mississippi Burning, Django Unchained and, most recently, the cartoonish Stonewall, have used charismatic white leads to tell histories that should revolve around black folk.  Recent portrayals of Jonestown marginalize black women and omit the intersectional gender politics, queer identities and socio-historical context of the Peoples Temple movement.  Even African American documentarian Stanley Nelson’s otherwise on point 2006 film The Life and Death of Peoples Temple fails to amplify black women’s pivotal role in and contribution to the church’s activism.

Doing a film adaption was also an opportunity to showcase underappreciated and underrepresented multigenerational black actresses. Many of the cast hail from screen and stage via Los Angeles’ acclaimed Black theatre company the Robey Theatre, which was founded in 1994 by actors Ben Guillory and Danny Glover.

As adapted from the book, the film production centers on black women characters partly modeled on real life Peoples Temple members who went to Jonestown.  Theatre pro Camille Lourde Wyatt plays Ernestine Markham, a character based on Christine Miller; the only person recorded challenging Jones’ command that the community commit mass suicide on the so-called “Death Tape”.  Because there is so little known about Miller’s background I wanted to provide her fictional counterpart with a rich back story.  In White Nights, Black Paradise, Markham/Miller is an English teacher, politically conscious “race woman” and Temple loyalist who speaks out when the corruption and abuse in the church become impossible for her to ignore.

The diversity of belief systems in the church is reflected in the atheist and agnostic world views of lead protagonists and sisters, Taryn and Hy Strayer.  Played by electric actresses Tiffany Coty and Aba Arthur, the often contentious pair becomes involved in the Temple out of a commitment to social justice in the Bay Area.  This was the unifying theme in the lives of many surviving Temple members who lost family in Jonestown—black women and women of color like Jordan Vilchez, Juanell Smart and Leslie Wagner-Wilson (the only black woman to pen an autobiography on the tragedy*) were all motivated to stay with the Temple because of family ties and the church’s commitment to progressive politics.

The rich gender and sexual diversity of the church is reflected in the characters Taryn, Devera Medeiros and Jess McPherson.  Devera is a transwoman and writer cultivated by Jim Jones while Jess is a holistic therapist involved in an intense, often co-dependent love relationship with Taryn.   As played by Latonya Kitchen (making her film debut) and the riveting Dionne Neish, both exemplify the ways in which strong, accomplished black women became ensnared by and complicit in the Temple’s culture of persecution and terror. This dynamic is also illustrated by the role of Zephyr Threadgill, an aerospace engineer incisively rendered by Robbie Danzie, who serves as Jim’s “prosecutor” in a pernicious Salem Witch trial-esque interrogation scene. In her role as co-conspirator, Danzie is ably matched by veteran actor Darrell Philip, who nails Jones’ brooding megalomania.

In tackling the key role of Taryn, Chicago-native Tiffany Coty said she was attracted to the film because of the dearth of meaty, complex roles for black women in the industry.  Black actresses past the sexist “prime” of ingénue must fight tooth and nail for limited opportunities in the Hollywood pipeline.  Mainstream film has no use for older black women beyond the obligatory self-sacrificing mothers, white women sidekicks, or austere, Talented Tenth one-scene courtroom procedural judges.

In our film, black women emerge as powerful historical actors representing the entire spectrum of religious belief, “apostasy” and agency. They also have pivotal roles as documentarians of the church’s politics and power struggles.  Most fictional portrayals of Peoples Temple have avoided focusing on the complex role of the Black press in the church’s rise.  White Nights, Black Paradise highlights the influence of Carlton Goodlett, firebrand publisher of the once prominent Sun Reporter black newspaper chain as well as the Peoples Forum newspaper.  In the book and film, Goodlett’s unwavering support of Jones and the Temple is offset by the critical presence of Ida Lassiter, a fictitious investigative journalist and activist.  As played by actress and former reporter Janine Lancaster, Ida spars with Lourde’s righteous Ernestine over the emigration of the church to Jonestown and her checkered past with Jim Jones.

The limitations of interracial “sisterhood” and second wave feminist solidarity are epitomized by the divisive figure of Carol, played by Allison Blaize. Modeled on Carolyn Layton, a white Temple lieutenant, chief strategist and mother of one of Jones’ children, Carol represents one of the biggest paradoxes of the church.  White women, often sexually manipulated, were installed as “gentle” enforcers and authority figures by Jones.  The tacit conflict between black and white women over leadership upended the image of socialist egalitarianism the movement attempted to project in public. These kind of politics—all too real in this era of Clintonian white corporate feminism--are conspicuously absent from the white gaze of historical fiction.  

In White Nights, Black Paradise, Peoples Temple is a space of projection for black women’s dreams, ambitions, and struggles for self-determination in apartheid America.  As Robbie Danzie (Zephyr) notes, “The novel reminds those of us passionately committed to organizations (spiritual or not), that our participation must be based on inquiry and self-study, as opposed to heightened emotion and blind faith or trust stirred by others.  Even today, there are those of us roused to action, sometimes tragically, by leaders of churches and/or political organizations, who've become intoxicated by increased money and power.”

*Jonestown survivor Hyacinth Thrash narrated her life story to an autobiographer for the book The Onliest One Alive.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of White Nights, Black Paradise and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars.  The film will be released this fall.

by Sikivu Hutchinson on April 20 2017

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