Award-winning documentary Ahead of the Curve focuses on the largely unknown story of magazine founder and editor Franco Stevens. Featuring interviews with Academy Award winner Melissa Etheridge, comedian Lea DeLaria (Orange Is The New Black), author, poet and playwright Jewelle Gomez (The Gilda Stories), award-winning poet Denice Frohman and Franco herself, the documentary celebrates the legacy of a movement while considering the agenda of its future.
The film begins in the present, where Franco has just found out that Curve magazine – formerly known as Deneuve – could be closed down within a year. As Franco’s legacy faces extinction and she reassesses her life after a disabling injury, she sets out to understand the visibility work being led by an intersection of queer women, and how Curve can continue to serve the community today.
Growing up, Franco never saw any representation of queer women – she didn’t even know it was possible for a woman to be gay. As a young woman who’d been married for three-and-a-half years, she realised she was a lesbian, and it changed the course of her life. Following a move to San Francisco, where she was temporarily homeless, she began working in a gay bookshop, but couldn’t see her community represented in any of the magazines on offer. As she puts it in the film, “There were gay magazines – just not the right ones.”
So, in 1990, Franco launched one herself, creating a safe place for lesbians in the form of Deneuve (in 1995, at the height of the magazine’s popularity, she was sued by actress Catherine Deneuve, hence the title change). With no money of her own, she applied for as many credit cards as she could, cashed them in, bet all the money down at the racetrack and won enough to start. Putting everything on the line, 23-year-old Franco managed to scrape together enough money to assemble an editorial team and create three issues.
It was the magazine’s mission to make the women who graced their pages look and feel great. Created at a time when there were no openly gay celebrities or politicians, and women were routinely kicked out of their homes, fired from their jobs and lost custody of their children because they were gay, the magazine was a much-needed form of community for readers across the US. Just three issues in, the subscriber list exploded. “Much more than a ground-breaking publication, Curve became a lifeline for the lesbian community in the 1990s,” explains the film’s co-director Jen Rainin, who also happens to be Franco’s wife.
“One of the reasons that Franco started the magazine was to say, ‘Our community is not a monolith, we are every colour, we are every shape, we are every race, we are every size, we are every age, we are every ability – and we’re all strong and beautiful!’ says co-director Rivkah Beth Medow. “With this release we’ll be able to reach a much wider audience and have those intergenerational conversations that are critical to creating a safer, more inclusive world.” This is laid bare in a scene at a Las Vegas convention, where Franco is part of a panel talking about visibility within the community. Lots of interesting and illuminating conversations take place about coming out, the arguments surrounding the word ‘lesbian’ – a word that was controversially removed from Curve’s cover once it was bought by the new publisher – and trans rights. This film is worth watching for these educational discussions alone.
So, what have critics made of it? The Hollywood Reporter’s Inkoo Kang said: “First-time director Jen Rainin’s portrait of Stevens, Curve’s achievements and blindspots, lesbian progress during the Clinton era and the uneasiness with the ‘lesbian’ label among many queer women today is accomplished, resonant and deeply moving.” Meanwhile, Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian describes the film as “staggering” and a “valuable portrait of a great risk-taker”. We have to agree. This is a moving and inspiring watch, and one that makes you hope for the best for Franco’s legacy and the future of Curve.