Writer Looks Past Urban Camouflage

Article excerpt

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.

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. …