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.
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.