- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2000

Television writer-producer David Mills knows firsthand about protective coloration.

Growing up in what he calls "a lower working-class family," he has told how, during the 1968 riots, neighbors put the word "blacks" on the brick house in which they lived at the corner of Fifth and I Streets NE, just one block from the burned-out commercial H Street corridor in the District of Columbia.

If prejudice and conflict have been part of his inheritance, so is a great deal of writing talent and determination to challenge the status quo.

The latest evidence of this is his role in the HBO miniseries called "The Corner," about life in Baltimore's blighted drug-scarred neighborhoods, for which he is co-writer and co-executive producer along with David Simon, author of the book upon which the six-part drama is based.

The stated aim of the show, which debuts April 16, is to look inside the lives of people struggling to stay afloat under all sorts of adverse and perverse conditions, to see them as real people and not sociological aberrations "To show the fundamental humanity of people whom we otherwise choose not to think about," in Mr. Mills' words.

Mr. Simon's 1997 book was an exhaustive nonfiction account a documentary in narrative form done with the collaboration of ex-detective Edward Burns. Mr. Mills, 38, and Mr. Simon knew each other some 20 years ago as students at the University of Maryland, where Mr. Mills was a journalism major with "a vague ambition to write for TV."

The ambition was fueled after college by Mr. Simon's offer to co-write a TV series out of his first book, "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," that launched the successful network TV series.

"It was more of a lark to him, but it was more than that for me even then," Mr. Mills says. "Because I had grown up watching a lot of television in the 1980s such as 'Hill Street Blues' and 'St. Elsewhere,' thinking that was a noble form the way other generations grew up wanting to write the great American novel."

He also spent time, and had considerable impact, as a feature writer for The Washington Times and then The Washington Post, working about four years at each newspaper. At The Times, he took on the anti-Semitism of rap group Public Enemy's Professor Griff, and an interview he did with Sister Souljah in The Post became an issue in the 1992 presidential campaign. He quoted the singer saying "I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?" which brought public criticism of her from then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and drove a wedge between the candidate and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

The soft-spoken Mr. Mills admits that he had little knowledge of Baltimore before the current project. He was chosen in part, because HBO, which he credits with having a history of serious-minded dramas about black life, wanted Mr. Simon to do it with a black writer.

"The people on which the show is based are in a much more desperate state than the folks I grew up with, but I felt I had at least a little something to draw on in terms of what city life is about."

"Corner" also was the first time that he "really became a producer," an important title for a writer, he says, if only out of self-protection: "A writer who is not a born manager has to secure that power so no one else can ruin your writing."

"He's not meddlesome," said a terse Charles S. "Roc" Dutton when asked to comment about Mr. Mills' talent. The Baltimore native and award-winning actor who was hired by HBO to direct "The Corner" series was comparing writers for TV and for feature films and how they differ in the importance they play and contributions they can make on the set.

The soft-spoken Mr. Mills knows when to speak out, though. His challenge to TV's David Milch after the co-producer of "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue" spoke skeptically in public about black writers' contribution to the medium, helped land Mr. Mills a job on "NYPD Blue," where he was to become the only black person on the formerly all-white male writing staff.

Never having studied screenwriting apparently wasn't a drawback.

"I came to learn the skills honed in journalism really apply to screenwriting, particularly the need to get attention fast and hold onto it to the end and the ability to capture different people's voices." A further challenge in the entertainment world, Mr. Mills says, is how moral drama can address social issues without hitting viewers over the head.

In 1994, he quit his day job and moved to Los Angeles, where most TV dramas are filmed. He kept his Silver Spring, Md., apartment "in case things didn't work out." And, besides, his friends and family are here. He visits the Washington area several times a year.

He got a job on David Kelley's "Picket Fences" but left when he wasn't given much to write. (Mr. Kelley is known for writing most of his successful series, including "Ally McBeal.") Mr. Mills' friendship with Mr. Milch, whom he calls his mentor, led to work on a "NYPD Blue" episode that was nominated for an Emmy award.

But, more importantly, he says, the script secured his status as a protege of the man known as "the best literary voice, and writer, on TV."

A 1997 listing as writer and co-producer on "ER" was followed in 1998 by "The Corner" project with Mr. Simon and Mr. Mills dividing the work down the middle.

"Six hours is a lot of writing," he says. They outlined the miniseries together and split the writing of scripts, then later went over one another's work until HBO "turned the flame up and things started happening fast" in the spring of 1999, he says.

What he hopes now to do is create, produce and write a series of his own that would put him in a position similar to that of Mr. Milch and Mr. Kelley. The subject on his plate focuses on a study of class among blacks in Washington with politics as a backdrop, using as his material "the class distinctions that were in play during the Sharon Pratt Kelly campaign, as well as her governance of the city."

The idea occurred to him when Khandi Alexander, the female lead of "The Corner," approached him along with a former HBO executive to build another series around her.

"It isn't about skin color but about the amount of dough your family has," he says.

He is well placed as an observer. Being light-skinned, Mr. Mills moves easily among the worlds of color. As a trained observer, he says he never feels totally comfortable anywhere: "That is a good perspective to have because if you don't feel 100 percent comfortable, you always are studying the dynamics of race and color and class. It's a good thing for a storyteller to be."

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