Breaking down the color barrier. Producer Topper Carew uses TV to help shape values
Boston — `AMERICANS have the most interesting social tapestry of any people in the world,'' says noted TV-film producer Topper Carew. ``It's a precious thing, and we just need to stand up and cheer for it.'' For over 20 years, this hardheaded visionary has been doing just that. And millions of Americans have joined in the cheering - sometimes without quite realizing it - every time they've seen one of Mr. Carew's popular and successful productions, like his weekly TV series ``Bustin' Loose.''
Though hugely entertaining, his shows also serve - subtly but powerfully - as value-setting media models of a humane and color-blind society. Behind the laughs and the sometimes raucous action, Topper is whispering an underlying message to his large and varied audiences: Here's how it can work - here's how people of all colors can forget race as they struggle together.
``I try to project the diversity of the American experience, the reality of who we are,'' Topper asserted during a visit here, leaning forward in his chair and speaking with both urgency and deliberateness. ``It's a very potent thing when we can come together as human beings. That has been the strength of this country, and, given the power of the media, it's a subject we have to address in as many ways as possible.''
And address it he has. The funny and socially aware ``Bustin' Loose'' (check local listings) - based on the film of the same name - features a ``mismatched group that wants to be a family,'' according to Carew. A big-hearted black woman takes in four children - black and white - who have bounced around foster homes, ``rather than see them fall through the cracks,'' Topper explains.
``They came together almost out of nowhere - and just consider the fact there are homeless children out there. I think it's an enormously powerful gesture, typified by the premise in this show, to bring people who are on the fringe of our society - these kids who are falling through the cracks - into the mainstream.''
In the show the woman is joined by a man who helps her as part of community service assigned him by a judge. ``He's got one little scheme after another to get to that next rung on that economic ladder,'' Carew says. ``That, to me, typifies the little guy in America. You root for them. In fact, you want each member of the family to make it. They're all striving to be that ideal family that we see every week on the `Cosby Show.' You know, there are many families like that in America. But it's not your peachy, clean suburban middle-class Manhattan family like the one on Cosby.''
And neither are the ``misfits'' - as Topper calls them - in his 1983 hit film ``D.C. Cab.'' This wild comedy may seem designed solely to entertain - with its tough-talking dialogue and riotous plot - but you may detect that it's also yet another of Topper's social visions: a multiracial group unified in a common purpose, to get ahead in the world.
``It's a about a bunch of underdogs,'' Topper explains, ``black, white, Hispanic, men, women - struggling to be a real cab company. The real challenge for me in all of my work has been to make it non-preachy, so that you can enjoy it, and relate to it.''
He certainly accomplished this in ``Rebop,'' his acclaimed series of children's documentaries on public TV in the '70s. Carew says, ``We went around the country and found kids that most of America didn't see on television - a Navajo kid, a Chicano kid, a Puerto Rican kid - and made wonderfully positive portraits of them. The goal was to make viewers feel comfortable with the idea that our society was multi-ethnic.''
Carew has always had ``an incredible fascination for performing and entertainment,'' he recalls. ``I was in a doo-wop singing group, and I played in a band in college and afterward.'' But somewhat to his surprise, he found himself with a Yale degree in architecture. ``I never expected to end up at Yale,'' he admits, ``having grown up in [Boston's] South End and with no particular ambition in high school.''
Later, in Washington, D.C., Topper had a contract to come up with ideas for renewing the shore area. ``But I had decided I did not want to be a pipe-smoking Georgetown type of architect,'' says Carew. ``I wanted to be a people's architect. So I opened a storefront in the Adams-Morgan community.
At that time he had a giant Afro - now gone - that gave him his nickname. ``Kids used to come by and stare in the window at me,'' he remembers, ``wondering `Who is this guy? What does he do?' So one day I just opened the door, let the kids come in, and started explaining what I did. They began coming by every day after school.''
The result was The New Thing, a do-it-yourself arts center that grew to five storefronts and became nationally known, offering everything from African dance to creative writing and filmmaking. ``We built a community of children,'' Topper recalls, ``then teen-agers, then parents. The idea was to give them a sense of self-esteem, to make them feel very good about themselves. And the measure of its success is that we've only lost about four or five of those kids to antisocial anything.''
Meanwhile, Carew says, ``My partner, Tunney Lee, now the head of urban studies and planning at MIT, came up with a brilliant idea: Let's make a film about the typical family in this neighborhood so the redevelopment agency in charge will be more empathetic to the people in this community.'' The documentary - ``This is the Home of Mrs. Levant Graham'' - went on to win some 30 awards.
But its true contribution was to help nudge Topper into filmmaking, and by 1972 he was offered a community fellowship at MIT for a year, where he completed three films.
``Actually I thought I would be going to New York to be a starving filmmaker,'' he says, ``but I took a job at WGBH, Boston. The result was a series of new shows - along with many awards. Topper was an exotic phenomenon in public TV - a black person trying to raise money. Later, when he went on to Los Angeles as a producer, Topper recalls how he sacrificed his hairdo of the time - the black style Rasta dreadlocks.
``Physical climate was one consideration - it's hot,'' he explains. ``But the banking climate was another. I had on a three-piece pin-striped suit, and we needed to borrow money for a production from a banker we were dealing with. I think the banker did not appreciate the dreadlocks. But I went back a week later with a haircut, and he put the loan right through.''
The recollection brings peals of rich laughter from Topper, as he looks back, without bitterness, at the high-powered West Coast show-business world. By now, Topper feels, ``The Hollywood show business community has come to accept and enjoy black talent and the fact of its enormous contribution to economic vitality.''
How about negative stereotypes on the screen?
``What's negative on screen,'' he says, ``is when black people find themselves consistently reacting to situations. What's positive is when you find black people in control of situations. But forevermore black talent will be regarded as an essential part of what they see on TV.''
Behind the camera?
``We are definitely lagging there - when you talk about what kinds of shows will be made, who will be cast in those shows. Our company in `Bustin' Loose' is something rare in Hollywood - a minority company producing a show for the American mainstream. I think that's the next big step forward for us. We've been outsiders for a long time, the outlaws.
``But now black writers are finding their way into the mainstream, and black directors. You still have to judge the shows just like any others, of course. But I think we have an energy to offer, an enthusiasm and point of view.
``I don't think the ball will ever roll backward - only forward.''