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Flashback To When David Milch Didn't Think Black Writers Could Write For Mainstream Audiences

Television
by Courtney
November 6, 2012 4:13 PM
7 Comments
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It's a slow news day today, and with good reason - it's Election Day. And I'm manning (or womanning in my case) the site in the meantime, while others handle their civic duties, and other matters. Very loooong lines at polling statings I hear.

Anyway, here's something that I dug up that I thought was worth sharing to get some conversation going.

Some of you will probably remember this story; I actually only heard about it for the first time recently.

At a writer's conference in 1994, David Milch, creator of hit TV shows like NYPD Blue, stated the following:

"In the area of drama, it [is] difficult for black American writers to write successfully for a mass audience."

I was shocked to read that knowing that Milch made those very bold claims in a public space. It seemed like the kind of thing you only hear about happening behind closed doors, but not this time. And, in response to that, the late David Mills (whom many will remember as the Undercover Black Man; his death in 2010 was quite a shock as I recall), who was then a writer for the Washington Post, sent a letter to Milch, challenging his argument.

And in response to Mills' letter, and the conversations that followed, Milch would eventually hire Mills as a writer for NYPD Blue, and reportedly also mentored him along the way.

Mills would go on to bigger and better things, eventually landing his own series, Kingpin, and collaborating with David Simon on more hit shows like The Corner, The Wire and Treme

Milch's 1994 statement goes down in history as one of those myths about black people and media, including: black films don't sell overseas, comedy is the path of least resistance for black content creators wanting to work within the Hollywood studio system, and others.

The question is whether Milch's belief about the capabilities of black writers is one that is still held by white (and maybe even black) producers, studio executives, and showrunners in Hollywood, today, in 2012, or if we've seen any progress. 

One answer from a report by The Root:

But while these writers and others interviewed by The Root have made some gains in the industry, the numbers aren't in their favor. According to a 2011 study commissioned by the Writers Guild of America, the number of minority writers increased slightly from 9 percent in 2007 to 10 percent of all writers, a slight rebound to 2005 levels. Still, this small increase in the number of writers of color isn't reflected in their paychecks; the television earnings gap between minority and white writers has more than doubled since 2007. According to the WGA report, "Minorities have been regularly underrepresented by factors of about 3 to 1 among television writers. As the previous report concluded, it appears that minority writers are at best treading water when it comes to their share of television employment, particularly as the nation itself becomes more diverse."

So while it doesn't directly touch on Milch's statement about black American writers not being able to successfully write for a mass audience, it does tell us that there's obviously still a diversity problem (which we already know well enough), which might suggest that Milch's thinking in 1994 may still be common.

The Root wrote a piece about this a year ago, called The Shonda Rhimes Effect? which you can read HERE.

But I'll let you guys discuss. At the very least, if you weren't aware of the above Milch story, now you know.

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7 Comments

  • ANNA TURK | November 25, 2012 10:27 PMReply

    I am very surprised what I have read......... Color has nothing to do with anything outside of beautiful.......... all colors including all colors of people.............. What does it have anything to do with writing or anything else..... I almost couldn't remember Mr. M's name - it's been so long and he seems to think he's better or "too good" to respond to a letter from someone who worked for him on NYPD BLUE. I was his and their "joke." I sure felt that way anyhow..... Maybe I will get a response......... What I hated most of all was the fact that I sent pictures of a place from centuries ago - old western town and prison ............. then Deadwood.......and the only words I can remember hearing the very few times I watched it - all I heard was the word, "Fuck you!" and that's a lot of all I heard on the stage, also............. too bad his alphabet wasn't bigger.

  • Tariq Tapa | November 11, 2012 9:45 PMReply

    Speaking as a writer who was also hired and mentored by Mr. Milch (far more generously than words can possibly describe here) and also as someone from a minority background, I feel compelled to add to his defense.

    As Mr. Judson said, the original quote was not only taken out of context (and thus mischaracterized what are in fact Mr. Milch's expansively humanistic views on race -- by the way, you need only watch a few episodes of NYPD Blue and/or Deadwood to see how widely inclusive his artistic imagination is, based on how many different races of characters appear on those brilliant shows), but moreover Mr. Milch was not making a judgement call on the artistic abilities of black people.

    He was simply summing up the persistent double-standard that all minority writers face when trying to start a career in our industry. And I have to tell you that from my experience, he really nailed it.

    The double-standard goes:

    On the one hand, we are told by the bosses "write what you know uniquely better than anyone and THAT is your ticket" (i.e. in the bosses' minds, this means: write about the experience of being a minority, because, you know, what more could there possibly be to a minority person's identity than his race?). But then when we follow this recommendation and present our results we are told: "Gee, sorry but I don't know how to sell minority stories to the mainstream." So then when minority writers try to write directly for the mainstream, we are told: "Sorry, but I already have writers who write for this market… and besides, this doesn't really feel like your voice. Maybe you should stick to what's more 'authentic' to you."

    It's not just the industry that thinks like this. Even some of the labs and workshops are sometimes guilty of this too, but they usually use subtler and more politically correct language. They use buzzwords like "authentic" and "organic" -- which is sometimes code for the same overall message: "We prefer you tell stories about poor or minority characters because to us that's where your artistic competence truly lies and without which your imagination is probably unqualified." This is its own subtle kind of prejudice that does not recognize itself as such.

    If you want a more eloquent take on Mr. Milch's actual views, I would point you to his fine book "True Blue," which gives a far more detailed summary of what he said at that writer's meeting, and what followed.

    I must say, I enjoy reading this blog and sadly there aren't too many like it. But when wild accusations and misreported quotes get cynically tossed around just to stir up the number of clicks (and particularly about figures as uncommonly generous towards new talent as Mr. Milch is known for being) then it's a real shame. Because I actually think more young writers of all races would learn more if they listened to him.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | November 7, 2012 8:57 PMReply

    Tell a great story and people can't help but listen.

  • Charles Judson | November 7, 2012 9:44 AMReply

    To be fair, the original quote reads: "...in the area of drama, it was difficult for black American writers to write successfully for a mass audience." That change from was to is (and the absence of the entire conversation from 1994) implies that Milch didn't think Black writers had the ability to write for mainstream audiences. The quote was in response to an audience member's question about why were there so few African American screenwriters. I don't think Milch thought Black writers could NEVER write for mainstream audiences. I just think he erroneously thought in his experience--emphasis on experience--he hadn't run into any Black writers he thought had the chops for it. He, like so many others, likely believed that if there were good writers they would be working, and if they weren't it was because they probably weren't good writers to begin with. So it was that and not systemic racism that was the reason for the lack of Black writers in TV. Then when he ran into Mills he not only found a capable writer who proved him wrong, he found a writer he respected enough to support him. "Milch didn't hire me just to get Jesse Jackson off ABC's back. He gave me a shot, I rose to the occasion, and he became a true mentor to me." For me this goes back to the UPTOWN, Shakoor, White writer conversation. We can bitch and moan about not being hired on projects, but if they don't see you, if they don't know you exist, if they haven't seen your work, they can't hire you. Systemic forces have actively and passively kept writers of color and women from getting into the rooms to pitch or meet with those with the access. Lots of work has never made it to the festivals, labs and workshops that put that work in front of the decision makers. So those creators never have had the chance to get on the path to get the jobs and opportunities that flow from those labs, those festivals. But, we also have to be honest with ourselves and ask how much of that work was good. How much of that work could have stood side-by-side with what else is out there? Mills first challenged Milch. He made Milch see him. Then he crushed whatever doubt that man had and went on to great success. One of the greatest obstacles we face is not the overt racism and prejudice, it's the racism of perception that's crept into the minds of execs and showrunners. A perception created by a system that has race built into its structure so deeply and firmly, that some of those execs don't recognize its influence on their own decisions. The effect on outlook is so subtle it's nearly imperceptible, however the results are profound and widespread. The end product is that we wear a mark that we did not choose because it's part of an unfortunate legacy and a still unbroken chain that tethers us, slows us down. That being said, that mark is not destiny. That chain slows us down, but it doesn't mean it can't be broken, that it hasn't been broken before. The real focus here should not be on Milch, it should be on Mills. It's going to take more folks like Mills, Rhimes and Dwayne McDuffie to make themselves seen, to make themselves noticed, to continuously chip away, to not back down and to produce the type of work that can't be denied or ignored.

  • Nikyatu | November 7, 2012 3:14 PM

    I appreciate that Charles Judson's S & A responses are always well informed and right on the money. This palpable prejudice amongst execs, showrunners, producers, etc is so inherent at this point that it's nearly impossible to even broach the subject for fear of being considered prematurely bitter or simply in denial of one's own lackluster abilities. "No one discriminates against excellence" is the truest quotation I've chosen to live my life by. We have to keep learning and writing and creating thus slowly chipping away at these erroneous perceptions that black artists are somehow innately inferior.

  • ALM | November 6, 2012 9:17 PMReply

    Who is David Milch to make a blanket statement about the perceived limits of an entire race of people? Hollywood is something else. The fact that he publicly made this statement shows that he has ZERO respect for anyone Black. I wouldn't have wanted to work for him after he made that statement, even if working for him would have proven him wrong. By working for him, you still give him the upper hand because he will judge the quality of your work, and you will ultimately end up chasing approval from him.

  • Tamara | November 6, 2012 5:25 PMReply

    RIP David Mills. Pfft David Milch. Two Words, Three Syllables: Shonda Rhimes. And to those writers/producers (of dramatic/comedic/romantic television/cable) on a "very-near-comeup"? Onward and Upward. El fin.

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