The Big Read cranks up in DC this week. Under the chairmanship of Dana Gioia, the National Endowment for the Arts decided to launch an initiative to support local efforts to present community reads and address what they sited as a declining readership among American adults. D.C.’s been hosting Big Read events since 2007. I’ve been part of that launch and this year’s Big Read events presented by the Humanities Council of Washington, DC. DC is reading A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines for the 2010 Big Read DC.
The way I see the Big Read the local goal is to uncover and gather in DC stories inspired by a Big Read book.
This evening at 6:30 PM the focus is TEACHERS and their true-life stories at Barnes & Noble Booksellers (555 12th Street, NW). The event is titled “Why I Do What I Do.” There always has to be a reason for the season. The storytellers are real teachers and educators: Delores Bushong, resource teacher for gifted students at Wakefield HS (Arlington, VA); Rita Daniels, executive director of Literacy Volunteers and Advocates; and Frazier O’Leary
a star English teacher and baseball coach at Cardozo High School (Washington, DC). DC’s public high schools are reading A Lesson Before Dying thanks to another generous grant from Reading Is Fundamental.
Door prizes, give aways and cookies. It’s free. Big Read DC activities will happen during the months of April and May. Visit www.wdchumanities.org/bigread2010. The 2010 Big Read DC is presented by the Humanities Council of Washington, DC, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and the DC Public Library.
If you’re a DC area teacher, tutor, or educator who assigned A Lesson Before Dying to your class for the Big Read DC, the Humanities Council would like to know about your experience teaching the book. Fill out this survey and share your story.
FILMFEST DC Filmfest DC also kicks off this week. The opening night event is tomorrow with a screening of “Hipsters,” a film by Valerie Tordorovsky. I guess it’s “Beehive” with a Communist swing. The price for opening night is $40 and includes a reception at Mazza Gallery near Chevy Chase. Will there be cake? This is FilmfestDC’s 25th year.
My involvement is with a new series “Justice Matters.” These films are being presented to highlight how the medium addresses and can influence change around social justice issues. Two of the films on my plate are “Soundtrack for a Revolution” and “Sun Behind the Clouds.” You can meet the filmmakers Dan Sturman, Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam at a free Filmmakers Breakfast Salon (breakfast is on your own) Saturday, April 24 at 9:30 AM at Busboys and Poets(5th & K Streets, NW). RSVP filmfestdc2010[at]gmail[dot]com.
“Soundtrack for a Revolution,” a film by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, tells the story of the civil rights movement in the U.S. through the “movement music” protesters, picketers, and other activists sang during marches, inside jail cells, and at organizing meetings. The music is performed by a new generation of professional musicians including John Legend, Joss Stone, Mary Mary, The Roots, as well as veterans like Richie Havens, and the 5 Blind Boys of Alabama. Archival footage and interviews with key activists like Andrew Young and John Lewis are part of the mix. The film will be shown on Friday, April 23 at the Regal Theater on 7th Street (Verizon Center downtown). See more in this clip.
“The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom,” a film by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, gives both background and updated information on Tibet’s quest for independence from China. In this documentary Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama is caught in the middle of a struggle between a super power who wants to exert its full control over the Tibet province, and a Tibetan movement for independence. Though the Dalai Lama’s “middle way” or compromise with China doesn’t seem to appeal to either side, the reality is time is running out for one generation. A new generation’s desire to take another path to freedom is coming of age. The film will be shown Saturday, April 24 at 7 PM at the Regal Theater. See more in this clip.
FINAL FAREWELL TO UNDERCOVER BLACK MAN
Monday I attended the funeral for David Mills, aka on this blog as Undercover Black Man. The service was held at the University of Maryland Chapel in College Park. Mills’ nephew Clifton Porter II has posted a eulogy on the UBM blog “blowing UBM’s cover.” Porter also delivered the eulogy at the funeral ending with the P-Funk pledge and perhaps epitaph: “…to funk, the whole funk, and nothing but the funk.” Mills was the author of an oral history of George Clinton and P-Funk.
David Simon, co-creator of the new HBO series “Treme” (with Eric Overmeyer) praised his friend’s work and gestures when a line or scene struck home (the downpunch that went no where), Mills’ ability to jump into the eye of the storm without fear of reprimand, and love of writing and story. Simon met David Mills while they were students at the University of Maryland working on the campus newspaper. I asked David Simon about the tribute to Mills at the “Treme” premiere party in New Orleans last Saturday. [Note: as of yesterday, “Treme” has been renewed for a second season by HBO.] Simon said there was a traditional New Orleans second line, a funk band, and they planted an oak tree in David Mills’ memory. I’ll visit that oak tree when I go to New Orleans to pick up where I left off with the “Church Lady Cake Diaries.”
After the funeral I crept back onto UBM’s blog to read about his life in New Orleans. It’s been a struggle to read the blog as it was an on-going chat with David that is now finished…maybe. The family has decided to keep it on-line. I believe it will inevitably become a very important document and maybe even my road map when I return to New Orleans, the city apparently where David Mills was no longer undercover.
It is with a heavy, heavy heart that I write this post. In the last hour I learned that David Mills aka “Undercover Black Man” died yesterday in New Orleans from a brain aneurysm. He was working on set for the HBO series “Treme.” Eclectique|916 featured an interview with David last summer.
I shake as I write this. David Mills and I had a lot of family history. Our parents knew each other; we were related by community (DC), history, and family relationships if not totally by blood. So that’s my full disclosure as to why Eclectique|916 dug him. You stand by your family. Plus he was a talented writer and provocateur in his own way through his blog Undercover Black Man. His last post was March 29th. It was about “Treme.” I’m guessing he was very proud of the work.
I can’t say any more right now. I will miss him very much.
Celebrate! As of today, Eclectique|916 has been live for one full year. It occurred to me last night as I was blogging about the Burqini. Oddly, my first post was about Muslim women’s fashion. Snap! I really didn’t plan that.
There are three people I have to thank for getting me started in blogging: Cheryl Contee (JackandJillPolitics) for telling me to stop sending those crazy long emails and start a blog; E. Ethelbert Miller (E-Notes) for posting some of my crazy long emails on his blog – actually his archives has my first live posts; and the Undercoverblackman for the moral support. My hand was shaking as I moved the mouse towards the “Publish” button in those early days. And of course, thanks to the first readers – friends and fam.
I haven’t checked the stats on the blog. Perhaps today would be a good day to do that and start posting them. It would be great to know who’s reading these days and what visitors are reading. Stay tuned for a survey.
Need to finish the Eclectique Citizen page. I think something like that is always a work-in-progress.
Is it time to extend or upgrade the brand? Expand? Redesign? Facebook page? Twitter account? I’ve been buying equipment for podcasting.
Before there was an “Undercover Black Man,” David Mills was a somewhat mild mannered reporter for The Washington Post who was invited to share in the good fortune of his college friend David Simon on a new television series based on Simon’s book “Homocide.” “Homocide” jump started a new writing career for Mills with several primetime network and HBO television drama series including David E. Kelley’s “Picket Fences,” Steven Bochco/David Milch’s “NYPD Blue,” and Simon’s “The Wire” as well as the mini-series, “The Corner” (based on another book by David Simon and co-author Edward Burns). [There’re enough David’s in TV writing for a WGA committee.] Mills received two primetime Emmy awards for writing and prodcuing for “The Corner.” In 2003, NBC green-lighted Mills’ own series “Kingpin” about a Mexican drug trafficker. Six episodes were broadcast on NBC (The series is available on DVD). Television, journalism, and music are still in Mill’s DNA as you will read on his blog, Undercover Black Man, and in this interview for Eclectique|916.
How did you make that transition from journalism to script writing? Did journalism help you be a better scriptwriter? What was the first script you sold?
I was on staff at the Washington Post in 1992 when David Simon, an old college newspaper buddy of mine, sold his book “Homicide” to Barry Levinson. As they were creating the “Homicide” TV series, the producers gave Simon an episode to write. Simon approached it as kind of a lark; he had no intention of leaving journalism at that time. He was at the Baltimore Sun.
Anyway, Simon knew I had vague ambitions to write for television, so he brought me on as a writing partner for that “Homicide” episode. He thought it would be fun. And it was. We worked out the story with producer Tom Fontana, and Simon and I wrote it tag-team style. Literally, one of us would get up from the computer and the other would sit down to continue. We were totally winging it.
But the episode turned out well. They ended up casting Robin Williams in it. And soon after that episode aired (in early 1994), I left The Washington Post with the intention of spending a year trying to get more TV work. Had I failed, I would’ve gladly returned to the Post. Fortunately for me, I landed a job on “Picket Fences” by the end of ’94, moved out to L.A., and have been here ever since.
I happen to think daily journalism was great preparation for TV writing. On a daily paper, you have to write fast. You have to grab a reader’s attention and hold it till the end. And a reporter’s ear for good quotes is the same as the screenwriter’s ear for good dialogue. I took to the new form very quickly.
Who were some of your favorite characters that you wrote for and/or created? Why?
On series television, there’s great fun to be had in creating characters that may only appear in one episode. On “Picket Fences,” I created the part of an adolescent white boy who’s deep into hip-hop and black vernacular. This was in 1994, before “wiggers” were much of a recognized pop-culture type.
A few times I created a character based on reporting from my journalism days. On “NYPD Blue,” I wrote a mentally ill homeless man who’d murdered one of his old college professors (“Head Case”). Some of the language he spoke, I took literally from my taped interviews with a homeless guy I’d met way back during Hands Across America. It was rather floridly psychotic, but it had a realness about it because it was real.
I also take pride in having created the character “Rocket” Romano for “ER”… an obnoxious surgeon who liked to mess with people’s minds and say outrageous, politically incorrect stuff. Dr. Romano wound up becoming a series regular.
The key to dramatic writing is coming up with characters who pop… who sound like specific individuals. A lot of thought goes into making sure each character has his own vocabulary, his own speech patterns, her own sense of humor.
Who or what was your best teacher in this field?
David Milch, co-creator of “NYPD Blue,” really took me under his wing. He is one of the all-time great television drama writers, and he is difficult to please. I remember every good thing he ever said about my writing.
The main thing I learned from Milch was to approach this work with a high degree of moral seriousness. Even though we’re talking about TV, we’re talking about popular entertainment… Milch really dug deep into his understanding of human nature and social reality. The stakes are high for him. As a result, his best scripts stand as works of art.
A friend and I were talking about events along the U.S./Mexican border involving the drug cartels and then we brought up “Kingpin.” Have you gotten any calls or emails from people saying “Hey Dave…didn’t you do a TV show about this?” Have you been keeping up with the news about the cartels and activity along the border?
Thanks for remembering “Kingpin”! I guess that idea was ahead of its time. I haven’t really kept up on all the crazy goings-on with the cartels down there. Interesting to note, though, that there have been a lot of pilots written over the years about the unique culture of the U.S./Mexico border. But they never seem to get to series. I think there’s a bit of resistance to the idea now, though I’m not sure why. I think the borderland would be a fresh setting for a cop show.
What was the inspiration for “Kingpin?” Have you been to the Mexican border? Did you do any hands-on research?
I didn’t do boots-on-the-ground research. But I did tons of Internet research. Again, the whole world is at your fingertips. A lot of details I used in the show — like the drug boss who had a pet tiger — came from real reporting I saw on the Web.
That show came about because NBC was looking to do a show like “Traffic.” That movie was fresh in people’s minds then. NBC was also interested in pushing the boundaries of prime-time content, in terms of violence and sex, in order to compete with “The Sopranos.” So my agent set up a pitch meeting, and I went in with my take on it… which was basically “Macbeth” in Mexico.
They went for it, and I had a ball. Because, like I say, I caught them at a moment when they were ready to try something different… to push boundaries. It wasn’t a hit, so from a network perspective it was a failure. But the actors and writers who were involved in “Kingpin” still look back on it with pride.
I discovered that I really enjoyed running a writing staff. We might’ve had 200 hours’ worth of writers’ meetings… just for six hours’ worth of show. That’s because you keep turning the story around, like a Rubik’s Cube, until you’ve got the best possible story. You come up with a good idea, but the best idea might be five ideas down the road, so you keep on turning it. If you have a group of writers who get along, that’s a great way to spend an afternoon… breaking stories.
I also enjoyed the editing process. I don’t enjoy being on set, so I wasn’t on set often. But once you get into the editing room, it’s like writing again. You cut out all the dead spots, you move things around, you lay music on top of it, and the show really comes alive.
I started blogging in December of 2006, but I really threw myself into it the following summer. I had made a decision to take a break from the TV business. For the past nine years, I had been writing pilot scripts, trying to create my own series. I hadn’t had much luck. So I was a little burned out on coming up with ideas, pitching the ideas to network executives, writing the scripts, then watching the scripts get rejected.
So I got started with the blogging thing. It seemed at the time that the blogosphere was a cultural happening. I saw with my own eyes that there were talented writers doing it, and the interaction with readers seemed intimate and cool. Next thing I know, I’d spent two years basically posting daily on my blog. It really became a compulsion that blotted out most other aspects of life.
You cover a lot of music on the blog. You seem to be on top of a lot of new groups, new sounds? Where did this love for music come from? Were you ever a musician? Music student counts for this question.
I have no musical talent. I was just lucky enough to come up during the ’70s, when the best music ever was being played on the radio. Everything from Freda Payne and the Ohio Players to Elton John and Chicago, I was into.
I’ve been a hardcore P-Funk fan since high school. And my tastes have broadened as I’ve gotten older… into hard bop and world music. I also wrote about popular music quite a bit during my journalism days. I’ve interviewed Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, George Clinton, Roberta Flack, Phoebe Snow, to name a few. I also co-authored a book in the 1990s, George Clinton & P-Funk: An Oral History.
So my pre-existing interest combined with the fact that it’s so easy to explore new music on the Web. I think the Internet is the best thing that ever happened to music. Might not be the best thing to happen to the record industry, but it’s great for consumers of music. There is a whole world of music, literally, at your fingertips.
You took a hiatus from Undercover Black Man for a few months. Now you’re back. What went on in those months and why did you return to the blog? Are you a healthier blogger now or was there an event that compelled you to get back on line and pick up where you left off?
David Simon this year hired me as a writer and producer on his latest HBO project, “Treme.” So I retired from blogging when the time came to write my first “Treme” script. And I got that work done. But we have a strange time lag. We can’t start filming in New Orleans until after hurricane season, because you can’t get production insurance. So we won’t film until November, and I won’t have any real work to do until September. So I relapsed. I backslided back into blogging. I’d be better off exercising, but hey… I’m imperfect.
Your blog was smokin’ during the campaign. Now that we are here and Barack Obama IS the President (and not Morgan Freeman), in your opinion does a real Black President make a difference to writers and their scripts for television and film? Will the “O factor” be part of a character’s DNA? If so, what? If not, why?
I wouldn’t bet on it. I was told years ago that the reason networks don’t want drama shows with black lead characters is that black lead characters don’t sell overseas. And Hollywood makes half of its money selling shows overseas. So I don’t know if that mindset will be altered at all by the rise of President Obama.
But I may be wrong. I haven’t been deep into the TV industry for the past two and a half years, so I don’t really know what network executives are looking for right now.
How did you like working in New Orleans? For “The Wire” fans, can they expect the same kind of intensity set to music in post-Katrina New Orleans?
“Treme” is a different tale than “The Wire.” The story begins three months after the storm. And it’s basically the story of a city coming back to life, and a group of characters trying to bounce back from that devastation. There wasn’t much crime in New Orleans the first few months after the storm, because there were so few people back. The drug dealers weren’t back, for instance.
There’s a lot of music in the show, and in that way “Treme” is a love letter to New Orleans. And in a larger sense, it’s sort of a thematic flip side to “The Wire.” If “The Wire” was about all that’s dysfunctional in modern American cities, “Treme” is about what’s still beautiful about the modern American city. And that’s the people and their devotion to maintaining the traditions of their place.