Mahershala Ali on how his movie 'Green Book' details a part of civil rights history

The "Green Book" actor talks about his new movie and discusses the backlash against his co-star Viggo Mortensen after he said the "n-word" at a movie screening.
8:11 | 11/15/18

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Transcript for Mahershala Ali on how his movie 'Green Book' details a part of civil rights history
may have to make room for another Oscar, because he's brilliant in the new movie "Green book." He plays a world class musician on a road trip into the racially segregated south who touches his traveling companion the language of love. Take a look. Tell me what you're trying to say. I don't know. I misser. Then say that but do it in a manner that no one else has ever done it before. Something like -- put this down. Falling in love with you was the easiest thing've ever done. I loved you the day I met you. I love you today. And I will love you the rest of my life. So can I put P.S., kiss the kids. That's like clinging a cow bell at the end of the 7th. That's good. It's perfect. Please welcome mahershala hala Ali. Ali. ??? So that song was "Drown in my own tears" by don Shirley, the musician you play in the new film "Green book" and it's inspired by a trip that he took. Tell us -- tell everybody about it. Don Shirley was also a fan of yours and attended several of your shows by the way. Yeah. But um, yeah. Tony, an Italian man from the bronx, and don Shirley, an published concert pianist, start here in New York and go on a tour through the south. My character speaks 8 languages, refined, amazing man, complicated and dynamic. Tony, played by viggo Mortensen is a bit of a brute, tough guy, bouncer, a boxer and he needs to hire him to sort of be a bodyguard for him going through the south. And Tony is racist. And so it's the evolution of both the characters is really beautiful and dynamic and revealing about humanity. They end up still being very different by the end of the film but understanding so much more about each other because they share intimate space and they talk and their guard begins to drop and they really connect and you see the humanity in each of those characters. There's a kind of a lesson in there for today, isn't there? No doubt, no doubt. I saw you guys going back and forth about, you know, soul music and country music and everything. I think that's the nature of -- this is actually a great space because you can have these wonderful conversations. With respect. With respect, with people who come from different communities, different cultures, different opinions. We got to have those things. Were you surprised when you discovered what a green book was? Yeah, I was. So do y'all know what a green book was? You tell them. A green book was originally put together by a man who worked in the post office, an African-American man by the name of Victor Hugo green, and he basically had a list of -- because it was word of mouth at this point. Right. I know there's a place you can stay in Louisiana near such and such. You're traveling and you're black. If you're traveling while black, this is a list of places you can stay to get from California to funeral you got to get to in Beaumont, Texas. My grandmother told me about it because she grew up in Macon, Georgia. She told me it could be the difference between life and death. It's sad that we needed something like that, isn't it? Yeah, it is, it is. Well we did, but I mean, the realities were we weren't welcome everywhere when you have white-only drinking fountains. You know that you need to figure out if you want to travel, you need to know where you can go, what beaches you can go to, what bathrooms. Restaurants. It was the nature of the country. Thank god somebody thought about it because things could have been a lot worse without it. Yes. You and your co-star, viggo, are terrific in this film. This is just a beautiful film and it's nuanced and it really is applicable to what we're talking about almost every day on this show. You two have a lot of funny moments in the film but during a q&a for the film last week viggo was talking about how the "N" word was used more casually back in the '60s and he actually said the word. Yes. Yes. And there was backlash. And he's apologized, but what does that do in terms of the -- what's the impact on the conversation? You know, in the moment it was -- any time a debate can be had in black culture about the appropriateness of the word that should be left in black culture to have that debate, black community. But any time a nonblack person says it in a space, there's a mini explosion that goes off within you because you suddenly haven't processed the intention behind it, the relationship behind it. In this case and with viggo who I absolutely love and adore, there's a difference between racism, insensitivity and a lack of awareness. Any time someone, black, white, Asian, Latino, whoever exhibits a moment of a lack of awareness about something and then they quickly apologize and get it, part of us moving on and healing as a country and as a people is embracing that apology, not having no probationary period about it, like really embracing that apology and being like, all right, brother, you could actually be closer as a result of that because then they understand something on a deeper level. If he had never said it, maybe he would have never had that deeper understanding of how it could in some ways disrupt things. So, I just want to understand, he was talking within -- talking about the film, right? Let me actually tell you what happened. And the reason I know the context of what he was saying was because we've been doing this for a long time, for a month. And he and I both have said if you remove -- and this is exactly what he was trying to get at. If you remove the "N" word from why are vocabulary, it doesn't mean that you're not harboring racist thoughts or supporting policies that are racist or discriminatory, and so in expressing that, he's saying that it doesn't disqualify you from being a racist, and he said the full word in saying it. So you mean now we can't say the word? Because I am -- if you are going to explain this period of time, you've got to tell people what you're talking about. I don't think he was calling anybody out. No, no, he wasn't. He was talking about the time and the word. So I -- There was tremendous backlash. I understand and I think we have to be really careful what we're backlashing about. Right. Oh sugar. Yeah, we got to go. Got to go. The movie is great. It's great. The movie is brilliant. Listen, you have to -- is this the first time you've come on? Yeah. You have too come back. I would love to. Look, you have to come back because not only are you a fine actor, just a good person. Thank you. "Green book" is in theaters tomorrow. It opens wide November 21st. Do yourself a favor, we'll be

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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