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David Mills, a great TV writer and much more, has died

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David Mills, an Emmy-winning writer and producer for TV shows including NYPD Blue, The Wire, Homicide: Life On The Streets, as well as the new HBO series Treme, has died. He was 48; the apparent cause of death was a brain aneurysm suffered while overseeing the shooting of an episode of Treme. Mills also created the short-lived, underrated 2003 NBC crime drama Kingpin, and co-wrote and co-produced one of the finest TV-miniseries ever made, The Corner.

Mills was much more than the sum of his TV credits, however. He maintained a lively, funny, deeply knowledgeable pop-culture blog called Undercover Black Man, into which he poured all of his love for music, TV, and the movies, as well as social commentary.

I knew Mills slightly, mostly via e-mail and a mutual love for all things George Clinton and funk music. Before he became an important TV writer, Mills and some friends put out a newsletter called Uncut Funk that celebrated Clinton and P-Funk in all its forms. I’m proud to say Mills allowed me to contribute an entry or two to this enterprise. David was an endless source of funk knowledge and deep trivia.

He began his career as a journalist for The Washington Post and The Washington Times, and reported many significant cultural stories. He did a 1989 interview with Professor Griff of the hiphop group Public Enemy, in which Griff’s anti-Semitic remarks temporarily threw the group into disarray. Mills interviewed activist-rapper Sister Souljah, whose intemperate quotes about violence against black people became so controversial, then-Presidential-candidate Bill Clinton condemned Rev. Jesse Jackson for inviting Souljah to speak at a Rainbow Coalition convention. (This became known as Clinton’s “Sister Souljah moment.”) Mills also wrote a tremendously moving profile for the Post of the singer-songwriter Gil Scott-Heron, who spoke frankly about his drug problems.

Mills had a gift for making people open up to him. He got reactions. In fact, that’s how he got a TV job. He wrote to the TV writer-producer David Milch, arguing with comments Milch had made about the limitations of black writers in the TV industry. Milch was so impressed by Mills’ arguments that he offered him a job on NYPD Blue, and Mills’ TV career was launched.

I will miss Mills’ cut-through-the-bull prose and marvelous music clips posted on Undercover Black Man. And I’ll miss the marvelously evocative dialogue and story-lines he contributed to so many quality TV shows. Some of you may not have known his name, but just look at his work: David Mills was a great, passionate writer.

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