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

Shadow and Act By Courtney | Shadow and Act November 6, 2012 at 4:13PM

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.
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Eric Deggans

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.

This article is related to: Television, TV Features


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