We Lost Our Undercover Black Man

Remembering Treme writer David Mills, whose death at 48 is a tragedy for television and the blogosphere

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On his blog, he called himself the Undercover Black Man, because, well, for most folks, “black” wasn’t the first word that came to mind when they first saw David Mills.  (Never mind his intense, abiding love for all things P-funk.) Still, in many ways, it was an apt moniker: When it came to his nearly 20 year television career, the Emmy Award-winning Mills was the undercover brother, typing behind the scenes, pounding out scripts from NYPD Blue to The Corner to Homicide to The Wire, rendering life on the street real and raw and rugged.

On Tuesday, in New Orleans, Mills collapsed on the set of Treme, the new HBO series set in New Orleans that he was working on with David Simon, his college buddy and long-time collaborator.  You could insert here all the usual clichés about how Mills died doing what he most loved to do, and perhaps that would true. But television is the worst for it.  Clearly, Mills, for whom Treme was a return to television writing after a self-imposed hiatus, was looking to the future, eagerly anticipating what would come next: ” ‘Treme’ is less than two weeks away,” he posted on his blog, along with a 14-minute clip from the show.

That was Monday.  By Wednesday, commenters had gone from posting congratulations ( “Can’t wait for [Treme], looks awesome”) to condolences (“Holy fucking sh*t. I am so blown away. You will be missed David/UBM. So young, such a tragic loss.”)

Mills was only 48–plenty of time left to make a lot more art, to create a lot more new shows, to write a lot more quirky blog posts like “A positive spin on the Ku Klux Klan” and “Attack of the GIANT NEGROES!”

He was a DC native-well, a suburban DC native-who, while a University of Maryland student in the early ’80s, wrote for the Diamondback newspaper with Simon. From there, he wrote for The Washington Times, when he raised a ruckus for quoting the Professor Grif of Public Enemy’s more anti-Semitic comments. Later, he moved to the Washington Post’s Style section, where he made news again-this time, for his 1992 profile of Sister Soulja, whom he quoted as saying of the Los Angeles riots, “I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” It was the quote heard ’round the campaign trail, as then Gov. Bill Clinton used it to condemn Soulja, Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition. 

With his journalism, Mills wrote sharply provocative profiles and think pieces, covering arts and culture. He was, in short, a talent.   (I remember coming to the Post in ’99, to cover his former beat, acutely aware that I was following in some very big footprints.) But when television beckoned, he left without looking back-even after his then-editor, Mary Hadar, offered to keep his job warm–just in case the TV thing didn’t work out. He turned her down. The last thing he needed, he told her, was a safety net.

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