President Donald Trump was 3,000 miles away from the Academy Awards on Sunday night, but his presence loomed larger in the Dolby Theatre than anyone else in the room. From Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue to acceptance speeches to the ads punctuating the ceremony, it felt at times like the Oscars were more focused on delivering an extremely public rebuke to Trump than they were on celebrating the art of filmmaking.
The question is how effective such forms of protest are, in a media environment in which more than half of Americans think the press is too critical of the current president. Kimmel was one of the few personalities in the room who mentioned Trump; others largely chose to subtweet, without saying his name. While jabs about the president and his Twitter fixation made for easy punchlines, the most cutting and memorable moments of the night were the ones that elected to show, not tell—to reveal how Trump’s policies stand in direct opposition to the spirit of art in general and film in particular.
Trump was an irresistible target for Kimmel, who laid into the one-time Oscar presenter right from the start. “This broadcast is being watched live by millions of Americans,” he quipped, “and around the world in more than 225 countries that now hate us.” He was briefly earnest, compelling everyone watching to reach out to one person they disagree with and have “a positive, considerate conversation, not as liberals or conservatives”—something that, he affirmed, could truly make America great again. But then it was back to business as usual: thanking Homeland Security for letting the French actress Isabelle Huppert into the country, pointing to Andrew Garfield’s drastic weight loss for a role as proof that Hollywood discriminates not against nationality, but against age and weight. An extended gag lampooning Meryl Streep’s “uninspiring and overrated performances” seemed directly ripped from Trump’s own critique of the actress after the Golden Globes.
The second award presented, for makeup and hairstyling, went to Alessandro Bertolazzi, Giorgio Gregorini, and Christopher Nelson for Suicide Squad. “I’m an immigrant. I come from Italy,” Bertolazzi said, accepting the award. “I work around the world and this is for all the immigrants.” His sentiments were echoed in more specific terms by the Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, who won best foreign-language film for The Salesman, but elected not to attend the ceremony in protest of Trump’s immigration ban on seven majority-Muslim countries. His award was accepted by the Iranian American astronaut Anousheh Ansari, who read Farhadi’s statement aloud. “Dividing the world into the us and our enemies categories creates fears,” she read, with Farhadi calling out the “inhumane” immigration law earlier this year. “Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions. They create empathy between us and others. An empathy which we need today more than ever.”
One presenter, too, took the opportunity to put a human face on Trump’s policies. The actor Gael Garcia Bernal, co-presenting the award for best animated feature, slipped in a quick statement, saying, “As a Mexican, as a Latin-American, as a migrant worker, as a human being, I’m against any form of wall that separates us.” And last year’s winner for best supporting actor, Mark Rylance, briefly pondered how actors and filmmakers might work to unite Americans. “Opposition’s great in film and stories, it’s wonderful in sport, it’s really good in society,” he said. “The things these films made me remember and think about was the difficulty—something women seem to be better at than men—of opposing without hatred.”
But Kimmel’s well of Trump jokes never ran dry. The Marvel movie Doctor Strange wasn’t just nominated for visual effects, it was also “named secretary of housing and urban development.” Introducing the Academy’s president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, Kimmel noted how refreshing it was to have “a president who believes in arts and sciences.” At one point, noting Trump’s Twitter silence during the ceremony, Kimmel had his phone projected onto a screen at the back of the stage, and tweeted, “Hey @RealDonaldTrump u up?” at the president, followed by the hashtag “#merylsayshi.”
This was trolling on an expert level, with its purpose solely to belittle Trump, and to remind him that he’s more in disrepute in Hollywood than ever before. It’s cathartic, perhaps, but it comes from a place of power—there’s not much the president can do that directly threatens the film industry. But he can, for instance, defund the NEA, which has a long history of helping projects (such as the 2012 drama Beasts of the Southern Wild) and artists who later ascend to Academy glory. Pointing out the president’s personal failings will almost certainly lead to viral tweets, but pinpointing how his policies damage the arts and entertainment industries might have a more profound impact in the long run.
The most powerful moments of the ceremony, in the end, were the ones that illuminated the people excluded by the president’s policies. Accepting the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for Moonlight, also the best-picture winner, Barry Jenkins had a message for the people the movie was made for. “For all you people out there who feel there is no mirror for you,” he said, “that you feel your life is not reflected, the Academy has your back, the ACLU has your back, we have your back, and for the next four years … we will not forget you.” In one of the most remarkable Oscar acceptance speeches of all time, Viola Davis explained her mission for making art. “You know, there is one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered and that’s the graveyard,” she said. “People ask me all the time—what kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola? And I say exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories—the stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition, people who fell in love and lost.”
It’s this kind of message that seems poised to have the most impact over the next four years. For one thing, President Trump—for once—seemed remarkably resistant to all the trolling happening onstage. “Some of you will get to come up here on this stage tonight and give a speech that the president of the United States will tweet about in all caps during his 5 a.m. bowel movement tomorrow,” Kimmel said at one point. As yet, though, there’s been no such response.