(Revised version of a review originally published in an online student project in April 2021)
First released in 1992, Sister Act brings a new sense to “making a joyful noise,” even today.
Starring Whoopi Goldberg, the film tells the story of Delores Van Cartier, a nightclub singer whose life is imperiled when she turns witness against her mobster ex-lover. To protect her, police lieutenant Eddie Souther hides in the most unlikely place he can think of: a convent.
But as one can imagine, the shift from lead singer of an unsuccessful girl band to eventual choir master among nuns is hilariously far from smooth. Adapting to leaving her singing sister act in order to join the nuns’ sisterhood wasn’t in this fur-coat-loving crooner’s plans.
Writer Paul Rudnick and director Emile Ardolino faced almost as many challenges as their film’s heroine in dodging the many pitfalls created by the film’s themes of religion and cultural differences. As a Black woman stuck amidst an otherwise apparently all-white convent that has chosen to isolate itself from the inner-city neighborhood it should be serving, Deloris easily could have wound up bearing the brunt of racially-charged jokes, or even mockery.
Yet Goldberg’s performance is anything but a joke—hilarious, yes, but human, genuine, and utterly un-stereotyped. Deloris leaps off the screen with energy as refreshing as the music she teaches the convent choir. Sister Act may be a bit of an oldie now, but its sense of humor holds up, even to modern scrutiny.
The primary source of comedic conflict between Deloris and the convent has nothing to do with the color of Deloris’ skin. Simply put, Deloris is too unreligious for the convent and utterly clueless about the nuns’ ways. She is a fish out of water when it comes to faith.
Here too, the film could have fallen prey to offensive representations, stereotyping either atheists or Catholics. Instead, the filmmakers chose to use these clashing beliefs to advocate for serving others and practicing mutual love and respect, thus grounding the film’s humor.
Is this answer simplistic? Yes—and the film knows it. Sister Act is not trying to teach profound life lessons; it’s trying to entertain.
The sheer joy of watching Maggie Smith playing a stuck-in-the-mud Reverend Mother as she learns to love the happy chaos that accompanies Deloris is enough to make it worth the watch.
It’s not that the film ignores issues of race or religion, it simply brushes over them with a feather touch and moves on.
It is only after the film is over that viewers realize they just watched a film with two black leads from the 1990s that encourages institutions of religion to be less concerned about following strict behavior protocols and more concerned with meeting the people where they are and bringing them joy.
The film never shoves it into viewers’ faces that the neighborhood around the convent is impoverished and multi-racial, but the choice of location is not an accident, any more than the decision to have the first group of neighbors to join the dwindling church be a group of BIPOC youth.
This is the story of a white church learning to serve its multi-racial community and of a Black woman finding new purpose in the process—even though it never mentions race once. “Sister Act” provides a masterclass on handling sensitive topics at expert level.
Unlike the film’s leads, its supporting cast of characters falls more clearly into types: Sister Mary Patrick is the shy, sweet one; Sister Mary Lazarus is the fat, jolly one. What saves these roles from descending into unconvincing clichés is: first, the skillful acting of Kathy Najimy and Mary Wickes, respectively, and second, the way that the script never makes these types a source of ridicule.
Never in the film is Sister Lazarus fondness for food even mentioned, much less mocked, and she is also shown as a talented singer and genuine friend.
She may fit into a type, but she is not defined by it.
Likewise, Sister Patrick is much more than merely the shy girl: she finds the bravery to befriend Deloris and even to follow Deloris into danger. These are both vivid women with full, joy-filled lives, set alight by Deloris’ energetic presence.
Throughout its 1 hour and 40-minute runtime, Marc Shaiman’s score and arrangements brings this joy to sweet musical reality in the choir performances that pepper the film, merging gospel, classical hymns, and Aretha Franklin tunes into a soundtrack that raises the church roof.
Good singing, as many puns as the name suggests, copious humor, a cheesy gangster side-plot, and brilliant acting—what more could a ‘90s classic need? Sister Act provides it all, and is well worth the re-watch (or first watch) on Disney+.