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Octavia Spencer (L), Janelle Monae (2nd L) and Taraji P. Henson accept their award for Cast in a Motion Picture for "Hidden Figures" during the 23rd Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 29, 2017.

MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS

The cast of "Hidden Figures" rocketed to the Screen Actors Guild top award at a fiery, protest-laden ceremony that was dominated by defiance over President Trump's sweeping immigration ban.

An uplifting drama about African-American mathematicians who aided NASA's 1960s space race, "Hidden Figures" was the surprise best-ensemble winner Sunday night at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium. With the Oscar front-runner "La La Land" not nominated in the category, most expected a contest between "Moonlight" or "Manchester by the Sea."

"This story is about unity," said Taraji P. Henson, who stars alongside Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae in "Hidden Figures." "This story is about what happens when we put our differences aside and we come together as a human race. We win. Love wins. Every time."

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From the first remarks by presenter Ashton Kutcher, the ceremony was peppered with speeches that argued passionately for inclusion. In a very well dressed version of the demonstrations sparked nationwide over the weekend, most award winners spoke in some way — either through personal anecdote or a call to arms — against Trump's halting of immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who added another honour for her performance on the political satire "Veep," said she was the daughter of an immigrant who fled religious persecution in Nazi-occupied France.

"Because I love this country, I am horrified by its blemishes," said Louis-Dreyfus. "And this immigrant ban is a blemish and it is un-American."

Perhaps the most moving speech came from Mahershala Ali, who won best supporting actor for his acclaimed performance in Barry Jenkins' coming-of-age portrait, "Moonlight." Ali said he saw lessons for today in "Moonlight," in which he plays a character who makes a difference in a shy, gay Miami boy's hard life. "We see what happens when you persecute people," Ali said. "The fold into themselves."

Ali said his relationship with his mother exemplified tolerance. The son of an ordained minister, Ali converted to Islam 17 years ago.

"We put things to the side," Ali said of their differences. "I'm able to see her. She's able to see me. We love each other. The love has grown. That stuff is minutia. It's not that important."

Ali was among the several Oscar favourites who cemented their front-runner status, including best-actress winner Emma Stone for "La La Land" and best-supporting actress winner Viola Davis for "Fences." But best actor went to Davis's co-star (and director) Denzel Washington for his performance in the August Wilson adaptation. Most expected the award to go to Casey Affleck, apparently including Washington, himself.

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"I'm a God-fearing man," he said, still shaking his head as he reached the podium. "I'm supposed to have faith, but I didn't have faith."

The most blistering speech was by David Harbour, who led the cast of Netflix's "Stranger Things" — another big surprise winner — on stage to accept best ensemble in a TV drama series. "We will hunt monsters," Harbour vowed in lengthy remarks that drew a standing ovation.

The hit Netflix series "Orange Is the New Black" won best ensemble in a comedy series for the third straight year.

"We stand up here representing a diverse group of people, representing generations of families who have sought a better life here from places like Nigeria, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Ireland," said star Taylor Schilling, while a cast member added "Brooklyn!" "And we know that it's going to be up to us and all you, probably, to keep telling stories that show what unites us is stronger than the forces that divide us."

A pair of veteran actors took other TV honours: John Lithgow for best actor in a drama series ("The Crown") and Bryan Cranston for his Lyndon Johnson portrayal in the HBO movie "All the Way." Sarah Paulson ("The People v. O.J. Simpson") and Claire Foy ("The Crown") also took home awards.

"La La Land" may have tied an Oscar record with 14 nominations, set a Golden Globes record with seven wins and won the top prize at Saturday's Producers Guild Awards, but it wasn't competing for the top Screen Actors Guild award. That means if Damien Chazelle's musical is to go on to win best picture, it will be just the second film to do so without a SAG ensemble nod in the category's history. Only Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" managed it in 1996.

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Actors, the largest group in the motion picture academy, hold considerable sway. SAG, though, is much larger, with about 160,000 members, compared to about 1,200 actors in the academy.

Lily Tomlin was the lifetime achievement honoree Sunday. The 77-year-old actress gave a warm, rollicking speech that dispensed both drinking advice and regret over wasting "a lot of time being ambitious about the wrong things."

"Did you hear? The Doomsday Clock has been moved up to two and a half minutes before midnight," said Tomlin. "And this award, it came just in the nick of time."

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