Bright Lights Film Journal

Blind Spot: Nonny de la Pena’s The Jaundiced Eye (1999)

A grim intersection of homophobia and hysteria ruins two men’s lives

America’s criminal justice system has been under increasing attack in the past few years, and it’s hardly surprising. The Los Angeles Police Department, once extolled as a model for other cities, is being investigated for widespread abuses. Death-row inmates throughout the country are being freed on DNA evidence – or because of incompetent or corrupt prosecutions – at a record rate. Black men in New York not only can’t get a cab, they’re lucky if they survive to try to flag one down if they’ve had the misfortune to encounter the Big Apple’s “finest.”

One niche branch of the system that’s mostly resisted efforts at reform is the false charge of child molestation. Such cases have exacted a huge price on both the individuals involved and a society that demands its pound of flesh – anybody’s flesh. The notorious McMartin Preschool case in L.A. in the ‘80s, with its wild tales of “pink haunted houses” and old women engaging in psycho sex acts, caught the attention of prosecutors throughout the country. They realized that regardless of the guilt or innocence of the parties involved, these cases hit a particularly raw nerve in the body politic and could transform an anonymous D.A. into a media superstar practically overnight.

Of course, an ambitious prosecutor is only doing the dirty work of a society that’s giddily reversed constitutional rights by being willing to jail a hundred innocent men (or women) in order to nab one guilty one. Hysteria around sexual issues, homophobia, bottom-feeding “child abuse experts, ” and twisted family dynamics are some of the social pathologies that can be orchestrated by cavalier law enforcement to put an innocent person behind bars. Nonny de la Pena’s grimly effective documentary The Jaundiced Eye looks in-depth at a particularly egregious example of the near-ruination of a family when a father and son are falsely convicted of molesting the son’s five-year-old boy.

This powerful film shows decisively that this case, which began in 1990, was as much about homophobia as about molestation. Stephen Matthews was an average Joe from the heartland – in this case Detroit suburb Monroe, Michigan – who married young and had a kid. He and his wife liked to go to gay bars when they were 17, but Stephen found something more than diversion there. After they had a little boy, and much to his wife’s disgust, Stephen realized he was gay and soon left her. She maintained friendly relations with Stephen’s family until her son was five and began dropping hints that he was being molested not just by Stephen (who wasn’t in Monroe much of the time) but by his grandparents. The two men were hauled into court, tried, and jailed with sentences of 18-35 years, based entirely on the child’s testimony, since there was no physical or other evidence that any of his stories were true. The grandmother, a pathetic sight indeed in the film, was released by the judge on the supposition that her husband and son forced her to participate.

The Jaundiced Eye makes it clear early on that there were other elements at play in this grim scenario that were never thoroughly aired. A major one was Stephen’s ex-wife’s boyfriend hatred for his predecessor and the whole Matthews family. Unseen, but heard in voiceover, he spews homophobic hate, railing against the family that he “accuses” of being “filled with homosexuals, ” saying at first that he doesn’t hate gays, then that he does. The ex-wife is also a kind of ominous, ghostly figure in the recounting of this story: she appears only in shadow, reinforcing in her interview the idea that because Stephen was gay, he must also be a pedophile. It’s certainly telling that neither of these characters, nor the son (now 15), nor some of the authorities who helped put these innocent men in prison, agreed to speak candidly, in person, in the light. One must ask what they have to hide.

The boy’s story, as in some other high-profile cases in this realm, was too bizarre to be credible. He claimed he was tortured, tied to trees outside his grandparents’ house, raped “maybe 40 times.” But examining doctors found no evidence of what would certainly have been major trauma – no cuts, rope burns, scars. He also said his tormentors repeatedly “put a machete” into his rectum, an image that some of the prosecution’s “experts” attempt to validate through torturous verbal gymnastics. Scenes of psychologists and counselors asking the boy leading questions, really influencing him to endorse scenarios they’re inventing, expose the flaws in this process. The fact that both of the main accused men passed polygraph tests apparently held little weight.

The trajectory of this case, which gained national notoriety, approaches the Kafkaesque, with endless nagging details emerging throughout but never explored – the boy’s black eye courtesy of his mother’s boyfriend, the couple’s x-rated videotapes that the boy could have gotten access to that would explain some of his lurid descriptions. Crucial too was the fact that the whole episode followed a fight between the boyfriend and the Matthews family over issues of “disciplining” the boy (the grandparents were considered too lax), and particularly Stephen and Melvin’s insistence that they would not tolerate him hitting the boy. The system’s failure to assimilate this kind of information, and its disregard of the physical evidence and the polygraphs, are sad proof of the film’s theme that “the jaundiced eye” sees only what it wants to see.

In jail, the boy’s grandfather retreated into bodybuilding and the Bible, while Stephen – who was raped there – studied law and searched for holes in the prosecution of their case. Faced with a vengeful ex-wife and her boyfriend, a troubled (perhaps brainwashed) child, incompetent lawyers, and a system determined to have his head, Stephen ultimately had to rely on himself. This proved the best, probably only strategy in the end, and the film is finally as much about the bravery and tenacity of one gay man in the face of annihilating social forces as anything else.