Just as Curve has been more than simply a magazine for the lesbian community since it was founded by Franco Stevens in the early 1990s, Jen Rainin and Rivkah Beth Medow’s spirited documentary Ahead of the Curve is much more than simply a film about the history of that magazine. It’s an engaging look at the progress of the lesbian movement over the last 30 years — and where it’s headed in the future.
Not that the story of Curve magazine — originally titled Deneuve — isn’t fascinating in its own right. The brainchild of Stevens, who saw the need for a glossy lesbian lifestyle magazine after she came out, ended her brief marriage to a man, and found her way to San Francisco’s vibrant lesbian community, Curve was financed with track winnings and maxed-out credit cards. Very quickly, it struck a deep chord with women across the country and around the world, and it helped foster community and acceptance. Even a costly legal battle with actress Catherine Deneuve over naming rights couldn’t keep Stevens and her staff down for long.
What did take Stevens out of the magazine’s day-to-day operations was a debilitating injury in 1997, which led to severe chronic pain. She ended up selling the magazine, but she never lost her hero status for those who came of age alongside her — or for many of those leading the movement today. These young women are the ones Stevens gravitates to as she tries to figure out a path forward for Curve when the new owner tells her that the magazine is on shaky financial ground. Stevens talks to passionate queer activists, picking their brains to find out what matters to them and how Curve can support their work — and the community as a whole.
As Stevens works on moving forward, her friends, exes, family members, and colleagues share their stories of Curve‘s early days, when San Francisco’s Valencia Street may have been a nonstop lesbian party, but before any of the partiers had the legal right to get married. While there’s still so much further to go for true equality, even within the lesbian community itself — especially in the areas of intersectionality and transgender support — it’s clear that significant progress has been made since Franco Stevens bet her future on a lucky horse and came out a winner.– Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Pam Grady: Thirty-one years ago, Franco Stevens saw a need and decided to fill it, founding Deneuve magazine (later Curve) to serve the lesbian community. This insightful documentary by Rivkah Beth Medow and Stevens’ wife Jen Rainin, spins Stevens’ story both before and after the founding of the magazine. An early marriage to a man suggested a different fate awaited her, and leaving that life behind to be true to herself created family rifts. The magazine was not without its controversies, even as it became buzzy and influential. A terrible accident created physical challenges that she copes with even now. Through it all, Franco has endured, remaining a committed activist in the LGBTQ community. Her story alone is enough to fill a movie, but Ahead of the Curve is far more than biography, as Rainin and Medow use Franco’s story to paint a broader picture of lesbian culture and politics over three decades.
Loren King This documentary pays homage to the trailblazers who founded and produced the influential lesbian magazine Curve, formerly Deneuve, starting in the early 1990s. The archival footage — big hair, Melissa Etheridge, joyous dyke marches, the media fixation on “lesbian chic” — is certainly entertaining. But any nostalgia is tempered by reminders that the ‘90s was also the era of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; the so-called Defense of Marriage Act; and several high profile anti-lesbian hate crimes. Read full review.
Sherin Nicole An original score by Meshell Ndegeocello is a strong hook to begin with, but Ahead of the Curve does more than guide us through the history of Curve magazine. Director Jen Rainin, co-director Rivkah Beth Medow, and founder Franco Stevens pull us into a conversation between lesbians on the verge of liberation in the 1990s and queer women right now. That exchange of experiences and perspectives is so vitally important that even the phrasing matters—it is part of the evolution of their visibility and, yes, their pride. Once called Deneuve (no relation to Catherine, we just want to make sure her name is forever linked), Curve was always a spiritual meeting place for women in the LGBTQ+ community. It is also Franco’s story, playing out in perfect harmony with her journey. In that way, Ahead of the Curve is somewhat of a pilgrimage, led by a woman who recognizes that growth fuels a community to thrive, a woman who is also iconic enough to speed us along toward every curve.
Marilyn Ferdinand With the legalization of same-sex marriage and the mainstreaming of LGBTQ people in entertainment, advertising, news organizations, and government, it may be hard for young people to relate to the history of LGBTQ repression. Thus, the importance of the documentary Ahead of the Curve from directors Jen Rainin and Rivkah Beth Medow cannot be minimized. They tell the story of Curve magazine, the first publication for lesbians in the United States, and its founder and editor, Franco Stevens. It is interesting to see the archival footage of Franco working to promote the magazine throughout the lesbian community juxtaposed with current footage of her talking with young lesbians about whether they even need a print magazine like Curve. The film covers some interesting issues facing not only the queer community as it struggles with language and identity, but also the publishing industry in a digital age. The film is somewhat marred by inexplicably fast cutting through the pages of Curve that turn the images into blurs. It also tries to cover a lot of ground, which makes for a somewhat chaotic narrative. Nonetheless, Franco is a charismatic and intelligent guide through the community she has spent her life serving and provides excellent proof that one person really can bring about meaningful and lasting change.
Leslie Combemale Directors Jen Rainin and Rivkah Beth Medow’s documentary Ahead of the Curve tells the story of the lesbian magazine that was once Deneuve, and its evolution as society and perceptions have shifted. It is also just as much a profile of its founder and publisher Franco Stevens, and her journey in creating a magazine that was transformative for the lesbian community. She was so committed and had such a vision that she made fearless choices and took outrageous risks to make the magazine happen, and become a force in the LGBTQIA+ community. It will certainly raise questions in viewers about how they themselves see queerness, lesbianism and other labels that, based on what they’ll see in Ahead of the Curve, are subjective and even often generational. It will also make many people aware of an inspiring trailblazer and icon in the lesbian community that has existed as much under the radar as she could and still publish a successful magazine.
Jennifer Merin Ahead of the Curve, from co-directors Jen Rainin and Rivkah Beth Medow, is a smart and impressively comprehensive documentary covering the establishment and history of Curve Magazine (formerly known by the title Deneuve) and showing the Lesbian publication’s enormous impact on LGBTQ+ culture and lifestyle. In addition to profiling Curve‘s dynamic and charismatic founder, Frances “Franco” Stevens, the film chronicles the Lesbian movement from the 1990s to the present, as it struggled — and continues to struggle — against persecution, discrimination and misunderstanding by making the Lesbian community, lifestyle and accomplishments highly visible. Read full review.
Nell Minow: Ahead of the Curve is a powerful reminder of the vital importance of connection and community, the impact of representation, and the never-ending fight for ever-broader understanding of inclusion.
Susan Wloszczyna: One of the better things that the briskly edited documentary Ahead of the Curve accomplishes is the way it charts how queer culture — and varied lesbian lifestyles in particular – have grown in acceptance since the ‘90s. Part of that change in attitudes in our society can be attributed to a gutsy woman named Franco Stevens. Read full review.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Directors Jen Rainin and Rivkah Beth Medow’s tribute to Franco Stevens (who is also Rainin’s wife) and her life’s work, Curve Magazine, the first glossy magazine for and by the lesbian community. The documentary focuses on how Stevens went from a young bride to an out 20-something who finds a job at San Francisco’s legendary LGBTQ bookstore, First Light Books, where she came up with the idea of a mainstream general magazine for lesbians in 1990. The doc features extensive footage of Curve’s early days (originally called Deneuve until the actress Catherine Deneuve sued the company in 1996), as well as interviews with Stevens, her former editors, writers, photographers and even girlfriends, and some of her more notable magazine covers and subjects, like Melissa Etheridge and Lea DeLaria. A nostalgic look at how this Gen X magazine was pioneering, the documentary doesn’t shy away from discussing controversies (like the name change) and missed opportunities (a current editor admits the magazine didn’t initially cover lesbians of color well). An informative and adoring profile of Franco (who suffered a workplace accident that left her unable to walk or continue to lead the magazine’s day-to-day operations) who was not only visionary but inspiring and brave in her mission to amplify the voices of queer women.
Liz Whittemore In the new documentary Ahead Of The Curve, directors Jen Rainin and Rivkah Beth Medow illustrate the importance of queer visibility and the evolution of Franco Stevens’ lesbian magazine Curve. With sit-down interviews from Stevens, her staff, and women featured on the cover of the magazine, we feel the massive impact on a community that continues to fight for equality, understanding, and acceptance. The lengths Franco has gone to keep the publication alive are astounding. The barriers broken by Curve will have an eternal ripple effect. It continues to be the best-selling lesbian magazine of all time. Franco Stevens will leave behind an important legacy, setting the groundwork for today’s youth to feel more comfortable owning their sexuality and gender identity.
Cate Marquis The surprisingly entertaining documentary, Ahead of the Curve, tells the story of Curve magazine, originally called Deneuve, the first lifestyle magazine for lesbians, and its founder Franco Stevens, but it also is a fascinating look at how much has changed for lesbians over the last thirty years. When twenty-three year-old Frances “Franco” Stevens found herself homeless after being outed to her family by her then-husband, lesbian women seemed very much in the shadow of the gay men’s movement, and were expected to dress like men to signal who they were. Stevens wanted to start a glossy lifestyle magazine for lesbians, showing they could be both gay and gorgeous and that they came in all races, ages and sizes, a start-up funded by winnings at a racetrack, after no one would give her a business loan. Sound kinda crazy? Yeah, it is that sense of audaciousness and underdog rebellion that makes this documentary so interesting and fun.
Title: Ahead of the Curve
Directors: Jen Rainin and Rivkah Beth Medow
Release Date: May 28, 2021
Running Time: 95 minutes
Distribution Company: Wolfe Releasing
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin