We Lost Our Undercover Black Man
Remembering Treme writer David Mills, whose death at 48 is a tragedy for television and the blogosphere
Mills didn't do safe. He wrote for NYPD Blue because he had challenged its creator, David Milch. In a writer's workshop, Milch had said that African Americans didn't write well for television because they couldn't adapt their experiences for a general audience. Mills wrote him and said: Try me. Milch became his boss and his long-time mentor.
Nor did Mills play it safe when it came time to creating Kingpin, a short-lived (but well-done) NBC series about a Mexican drug dealer. Kingpin was big and adventurous and filled with Spanish dialogue-a language which Mills, the show's creator/executive producer, cheerfully admitted he spoke "not one lick." But a story was a story. As he told me in an interview, "I don't know anything about Mexican culture. But I know about the human condition. . . . The breakthrough here is, this is a story about the condition of a man's soul. . . . Often in TV, to get that deeply in the psyche of a character, that character is white. It's pretty rare that a nonwhite character [gets that kind of attention]."
I knew Mills, tangentially through other friends and from interviews conducted over the years for the Washington Post, and last year on The Root. He was always accessible, gracious, funny. Last summer, after years of telephone conversations and emails, we met in person, over dinner. We talked about newspapers and writing and Latin rock and Parliament Funkadelic and New Orleans. He talked about Treme, and how happy he was to be working again. Just as journalism had taken a hit, he told me, so had television. Blame it on the reign of reality TV, the economy, what have you. Good jobs were hard to come by. "If it weren't for Treme," he told me, "I don't' know what I'd be doing."
I'm inclined to think the writer protested too much. He wasn't the kind of writer who went too long without work. How could he? His was a voice that made a big impact. And even if the unthinkable had happened, and he'd never ever written for another TV show, there was always Undercover Black Man.
On Undercover Black Man, he posted compulsively, taking on everything and everyone, gleefully tussling with white supremacists (they seemed to have a thing for him) to black nationalists (some of them called him the "one drop" man). He could be cranky and cantankerous, ripping on President Barack Obama; or sad and sentimental, talking about the passing of his mother. He reveled in the arcane, from obscure music acts (he was hip to the Carolina Chocolate Drops before just about anyone) to random Youtube videos of Japanese Stevie Wonder impersonators. Blogging was where he got to satisfy his inner journalist. It was his great distraction, the perfect procrastination tool. Last year, he said goodbye to his blog, swearing that he was done with it for good. He had writing to do. And then he started blogging again. Because a writer always writes... and a blogger always blogs.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior editor. Follow her on Twitter.