Today, a movie about a lounge singer who is forced to take on the identity of a nun under witness protection sounds too ridiculous to be any good. But 25 years ago, it was the stuff that blockbuster hits were made of. On May 29, 1992, Sister Act was released in theaters and became one of that year’s highest grossing films, and cult classic for ‘80s babies and their parents.
A 36-year-old Whoopi Goldberg led the cast as Sister Mary Clarence, a fake nun whose real name is Deloris Wilson and who performs under the name Van Cartier. Van witnesses a murder committed by her boyfriend, and must go into hiding until she can testify against him in court. She joins a convent in San Francisco, where she isn’t allowed to indulge the habits that a woman who spends her time in lounges with mobsters might enjoy. To keep her out of trouble, the church leaders insist she join the dull choir, and she promptly turns their drab gospel hymns to pop-rock odes to Jesus, until the bad guys inevitably show up.
If this sounds laughable, you’re onto something. Sister Act is a hilarious musical comedy. And you can believe that my friends and I knew every word to every song in the movie. It worked as a family-friendly film because it is sing-songy enough for kids but just raunchy enough for adults to enjoy it as well. This probably explains the $231 million it grossed worldwide. It was also remade into a musical that eventually made its way to Broadway.
With Goldberg, a Black woman, at the helm of the film, it was an important moment of representation and diversity. With a mostly white cast, she shone brightly as the film’s protagonist. Sister Act no doubt helped define Whoopi Goldberg’s golden years. Following the success of classics like The Color Purple (1985) and Ghost (1990), Goldberg continued to prove that she can do it all with Sister Act. The reverence many of us had for the actress has certainly waned since she became one of the hosts of The View. She has used the platform to defend rapist Roman Polanski, come to the defense of Mel Gibson after his racist rants, and reassure Tiffany Trump that she would sit next to her when no one else at Fashion Week would. I wouldn’t even call her a problematic fave, just problematic.
However, that doesn’t take away from the musical glory that is Sister Act. And even though everyone knows that the sequel — Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, with Lauryn Hill and way more Black people — is better, I am still thankful to my mother for buying this film on VHS.