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Journalist, TV writer and social critic David Mills dies in New Orleans



David-mills In many ways, David Mills was my hero.

Not just for being a kickass journalist who transitioned into an amazing career as a TV writer, working on NYPD Blue, ER, HBO's The Corner, The Wire and its new series set in New Orleans, Treme.

But because Mills never forgot who he was. Even while crafting storylines for hit network TV shows or developing his own landmark, Hispanic-centered miniseries Kingpin, Mills kept a journalist's eye for detail and accuracy and a keen appreciation for the struggle of his fellow black men in society.

Mills, 48, died in New Orleans Tuesday of a brain aneurysm, reportedly collapsing on the Treme set. It's an unfortunate loss of a great creative voice; I had just turned a literature class at the University of South Florida on to his amazing blog, Undercover Black Man.

There, Mills spent lots of time talking about the things he seemed to value tremendously; great R&B and old school soul music, thought-provoking topics and issues centered on race and great storytelling. It was on that blog that I saw the first trailer for Treme, and realized it was going to be another wonderful collision of urban culture, race, class and screwed up human failures that Mills and cohort David Simon handle so well.

I can't remember the first time I talked to Mills, but it was back when I first started writing a lot about issues of racial diversity on television. As one of the few black writers who had worked on major TV shows -- and a former journalist who still had affection for the fourth estate -- Mills was a willing and informative source. (I remain gratified and blown away that he linked this place among recommended sites on his own blog).

Davidmills-souljah_c His own journalism on race and culture was amazing. As Washington Post music writer Josh DuLac has been pointing out on his Twitter feed today, Mills wrote the 1992 Washington Post story which quoted rapper Sister Souljah saying "“If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”

Bill Clinton would later use that quote to criticize her, turning her into a symbol for the excesses of hip hop and black nationalism.

Mills also wrote a story for the Washington Times in which a member of the rap group Public Enemy, Professor Griff, expressed baldly anti-Semitic views which would -- after much half-stepping and justification by the group -- eventually result in his ouster.

Never one to let people slide just because they shared his race and culture, Mills even called out President Obama in one of his last blog posts for personalizing every political issue in his speeches.

Personally, I love this letter he sent to the Poynter Institute's news industry blog Romenesko's Media News, noting how often black celebrities and notables are mis-identified in photo captions -- leaving black readers to assume white editors can't tell us apart.

After stints writing for the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times and Washington Post, he wrote a script for the NBC series based on longtime friend Simon's book about Baltimore police detectives, Homicide: Life on the Davidmills-rocketStreet -- beginning an association that would last throughout their careers.

 Eventually, he would write for a boatload of quality shows, leading to another partnership with old friend Simon on Treme. Click here to read the story of how he created one of ER's coolest characters, egomaniacal surgeon "Rocket" Romano. He also created landmark roles for Jimmy Smits and Esai Morales on NYPD Blue.

So even if you never heard of David Mills before now, you may have been touched by his journalism or TV writing. And as the old saying goes: If you don't know, you better ask somebody.

Alan Sepinwall, a kickass TV critic in New Jersey and a personal friend of Mills, also wrote a moving tribute on his blog; read it here. The Washington Post's obituary is here.

I'm hoping David, wherever he is, is getting a chance to hang with some of the long-gone music legends he championed, especially James Brown

R.I.P., my brother.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 3:06pm]


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