David Mills, one of America's finest writers, journalists, and bloggers, died yesterday of a brain aneurysm while working on the set of the upcoming HBO series Treme. Mills was a writer for NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Street, The Corner (for which he won two Emmy awards), Kingpin, and The Wire. He was a journalist for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times whose most famous interview was the notorious Sister Souljah interview in 1992 shortly after the Los Angeles riots where she said "if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?" This was the cause of the so-called Sister Souljah moment where Bill Clinton criticized Jesse Jackson, which some analysts believe was a pivotal moment in the 1992 Presidential election. Mills was also the writer behind the superb blog Undercover Black Man which he updated the day before his death.
The best way I know to celebrate a writer's life is to look at his work. You will be hard pressed, in my opinion, to find many greater examples of television writing than Mills' work on the Homicide episode "Bop Gun" or The Wire episode "Soft Eyes".
Here, from his blog, is an excerpt of a conversation between Mills and his longtime friend and creator of The Wire David Simon:
SIMON: When I started reading that shit about how Namond was a punk, and Namond deserves to get got, I’d be reading this shit and going: "He’s 14 fucking years old! He deserves a childhood! He deserves to be 14 years old somewhere in America and be worried about whether or not he’s gonna get with some girl that he’s got a crush on, and whether or not his fucking social studies paper is gonna come back with a C or better.
"We’ve created a character that’s basically at the precipice of being hurled into the drug culture, and you people are pissed off because he’s not jumping in with both feet? You are fucked up! You are culturally destructive and self-destructive."
MILLS: But here’s the thing. Isn’t that a danger of even telling a story about gangsters? This applies to earlier seasons too, when there was this love affair that people had with Stringer Bell.
SIMON: It’s the same problem with "The Sopranos." Point-of-view is a powerful thing. Point-of-view grants a character a lot of humanity if you do it right. I think all the cues have been there for why Tony Soprano is an asshole and a hypocrite and an elementally destructive force in his family and in his community. And I don’t think David Chase has been equivocal. But he’s also given the primary point-of-view in that narrative to Tony Soprano. So if the audience isn’t careful – and a lot of viewers of television are not careful – the audience acquires a point-of-view that is corruptive and corrosive.
MILLS: But it couldn’t be any other way. Because who wants to tune in every week and see a show about a guy they don’t like or respect?
SIMON: And the truth is, I really do reject the idea of good and evil. I’m not particularly interested in that. "The Wire" is really more interested in social determinism. Not to say that people on "The Wire" don’t do bad things. ... Some characters, because of the place they occupy in the life of this simulated city, their capacity for doing things that society would recognize as being good is greater than their capacity for doing bad.
"I’m a cop and I’m trying to do this wire-tap case against a guy who’s doing illegal things." The chance that he’s going to be societally as destructive as a gangster is pretty minimal, though he may have incredibly cynical and destructive moments, personally and professionally. And vice versa. If he’s a gangster, his chance for doing damage is considerably more, although he may have moments of extraordinary humanity. But I don’t approach writing any of these characters as if, "Well, he’s a bad guy."
Even Marlo. I look upon Marlo as the ultimate social-determinist outcome of gangster culture taken to its natural extreme. Eventually somebody decides, in a purely Machiavellian sense, "I’ll get to the point of being Hitler. I’ll get to the point of being utterly draconian in my pursuit of power." But I don’t even regard Marlo as being necessarily good or evil. He just is. And I think that way about all the characters.
MILLS: Based on what you just said, you’re making a comment about Marlo that goes over the heads of a lot of viewers who just think Marlo’s the shit –
MILLS: "Marlo’s the man."
SIMON: "You gotta be like Marlo." And you know what? I’m not sure you can do anything with somebody thinking that way before you show them "The Wire" or after you show them "The Wire." If that’s their state of mind going into any cultural experience, what are you gonna do?