Sister Act is one of those movies that was got a lot of play when I was younger: school trips, friend's houses, church school, the whole nine yards. And who can blame them? It's got singing and dancing, it had Whoopi Goldberg at the height of her popularity, and, most impressively, it's a film about religion that's tailor made to appeal to both the religious and not offend the atheists. If someone could make a career out of doing that once a year, and they'd be swimming in pools of gold.
But, underneath a family friendly veneer, Sister Act paints some strange racial undertones that can hardly match the progressive attitude the film claims to possess. For while it's plot congratulates itself repeatedly about bringing the church into an exciting new area full of singing and dancing, the way it treats the race of its main character is a subject ripe for discussion.
The film starts with Delores (Goldberg) as a young girl attending a Catholic school. The beginning puts young viewers on Delores's side and sets up her rivalry with nuns. It also sets up the first plot thread for Delores's racial identity crisis as she cracks wise about a number of famous rock singers who are all white: Elvis and the Beatles, all of whom had co-opted black musical styles in their career. More on that in a bit.
Cut to Delores as an adult. at her low point. On stage in Reno, Nevada (not even Vegas!), Delores and a pair of back-up singers work their way through a medley of Motown standards like "Heat Wave," "My Guy," and "I Will Follow Him." The songs are sung with a fake sense of theatricality that make them hokey, and the performers are met with apathy and inattention from their wholly white audience.
After the show, we see Delores carrying on in an affair with a married man, Vince (Keitel). Not mentioned, but clearly obvious, is that the man she's sleeping with is white. No one says anything about that, and while it's encouraging in that regard as the to progress of racial sensitivities, making the 'wrong' relationship in the movie (i.e. the one that causes all of the troubles in the film) the one between the white man and the woman of color doesn't really represent the most forward thinking aspect of the film.
Here we see Delores's suite above the casino, and while it's nice, there's another racial trait that decorates the edges of the scenery: her rooms are decorated with cheesecake art of white girls. Between these images of colorless beauty that Delores idealizes and her flippant attitude towards the Motown hits she sings, Delores is a woman who is desperately attempting to shed her racial identity.
But Delores accidentally witnesses her lover kill a stool pigeon, and she flees. She turns up in the police station, and here we're introduced to her actual love interest, Lt. Eddie Souther. He's a big black man who's honest and has the same tendency towards snark that makes Delores such a hit with the kiddies. He's also the only other major black character in the movie: we'll get a few in montages and hanging out on the streets, but he's the only one given significant screen time.
Souther takes Delores under his wing almost immediately. And to prove that he has the same sense of humor, he places her in the last place her ex-lover will look: a convent.
Going from my experience and knowledge of nuns (which is almost entirely culled from The Nun's Story, so I won't pretend I'm an expert or anything), nuns maintain strict religious discipline and silence in order to show their reverence to their faith. They are creatures who prostate themselves before God, and, for all purpose, married to Jesus.
In that context, Mother Superior is a nun ne plus ultra. Her actions are prideful, selfish, and often detrimental to everyone around her. Watching her and Dolores have their first confrontation, which is tense, the underlying racial overtones are strikingly vibrant. Mother Superior is opposed to Dolores joining the convent because she would "stick out like a sore thumb." While one might think that she's talking about Delores's attitudes, upon seeing the rest of the convent, the truth becomes depressingly clear: every nun there is white as a sheet. Worse still, they're almost all uniformly old and crotchety.
Mother Superior's first confrontation with Delores is filled with subtle barbs. Delores, wishing she were a white girl, let's it slip momentarily, "I've always admired you people." Before adding, "Nuns, I mean." When Mother Superior lists all of the unflinching demands she will place upon Delores, the flustered woman quickly threatens to just hide away during her time in the convent. "I will keep my little black face in that room!" Even in the nun's habits, Delores won't be able to hide the color of her skin, no matter how much she or Mother Superior would prefer it.
Mother Superior also viciously decides that Delores's name in the convent will be Sister Mary Clarence. The Mary part is obvious, but the part where she explains her pick for 'Clarence' doesn't hold water: the 'St. Clarence of Concordia' isn't a real person. While 'Clarence' is an English word that sounds an awful lot like the word 'clear'. Giving the black woman a name that sounds awfully white only continues the trend of Mother Superior's urge to push for Delores's continue racial submission, but, oddly enough, this push will soon give way to Delores's self discovery.
Because Delores doesn't fit in with the church, she is assigned degrading menial tasks to do by herself, reeking with slave connotations aplenty. When she sneaks out to the bar across the street, two young nuns follow her and experience more secular world in all the ways a PG rating will allow. Delores is the only one punished by Mother Superior, but in her attempt to compound Delores's own suppression of her skin color, she finally gives her a way to express herself without fear of failure: she forces Delores to take over the church's fledgling choir.
Using her knowledge of Motown, showmanship, and the convent's potential, Dolores manages to combine these traits more commonly found in black-centric Baptist churches and package them as an acceptable change of pace for the rigid Catholics. By doing so, she rekindles her connection to her own skin color. This works handily, and Delores finds that the music she sings, that was completely ignored and meaningless to herself in her previous life, establishes an identity for herself apart from the white desires that had been leading her life beforehand.
This act gains her the respect of Mother Superior, and even when Delores's past catches up with her, the nun's rally together because they finally respect Delores. She may not be one of them, but they will remain loyal to her.
While it's the nuns who run to the rescue, as per standard masculine tropes, it's Lt. Souther who must save the day by arriving in the nick of time, and proves himself worthy of Dolores by shooting her ex-lover. Delores is freed of her commitments, but, as tribute to the respect she has earned and the respect she has been given, she continues to work with the choir, and brings them to international success.
I have more I could say about the religious subtext of the film, which is shockingly paltry compared to the racial politics, but the truth is that Sister Act is much more about Delores finding acceptance as what she can and should be: black and proud.
But since it also has the message that people of one color relate better to people of their own color, it seems to also be implying that the Delores should be black, proud... and separate. It's strange to see a family movie codifying racial barriers. Dolores's growth throughout the film comes from embracing both her racial identity, and the differences that entails.
The choir through all of its success, from all of the fake magazines and covers that pop up during the end credits, always credit and discuss Dolores apart from the group. What a lot of people will take away from Sister Act is the music and the pervasive sense of fun. What I will be taking from it is one of the last shots with Goldberg standing in front of the choir, as she always had. Her habit is finally removed, showing that her 'blackness' has finally been freed. But, even after she has given them all they've ever wanted and has finally found respect for herself, she still stands apart from the rest of the choir. To a world ruled by whites, she will always "stick out like a sore thumb," and the movie doesn't believe this is an unhappy ending.