A Fresh Take on Black America: On “Sister Act 2”

By Brandon TensleyDecember 14, 2023

A Fresh Take on Black America: On “Sister Act 2”
ABOUT AN HOUR into Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, Bill Duke’s 1993 musical dramedy that continues the adventures of the Las Vegas performer-turned-sometimes-nun Deloris Van Cartier, alias Sister Mary Clarence (Whoopi Goldberg), gifted teen Rita Louise Watson (Lauryn Hill) sings a contemporary gospel cut of “Joyful, Joyful.” Cloistered away in her bedroom, she is practicing for her high school choir at San Francisco’s St. Francis Academy. When Rita’s mother, Florence (Sheryl Lee Ralph), walks in and learns that her daughter has joined the group, the two clash. “Mom, we’re a good choir,” Rita asserts. But Florence snaps back: “[T]here are a lot of talented people right down there on the streets, singing their shoulda, coulda, wouldas. Now, is that how you wanna end up?”

This moving scene sensitively captures the conflict between a Black parent and her child as they negotiate risk and opportunity. Rita simply wants to nourish her vocal abilities, but Florence is ferociously protective: she doesn’t want her daughter to meet the same fate as her husband, who died broke, chasing his musical ambitions. Florence scratches out a living as a hairdresser and is intimately familiar with the precarity that tends to hover, like an apparition, over Black families. She’s determined to give Rita some measure of security. (Here, a note of irony: Ralph herself is an epic Broadway performer playing someone who is suspicious of making a life as a performer. Plus, Lauryn Hill is Lauryn Hill.)

But when Sister Act 2 debuted 30 years ago this month, critics—white critics, more exactly—weren’t thrilled with this relationship. Variety said that because of the mother-daughter subplot, the “action gets bogged down”; Roger Ebert lamented that Hill is an “example of talent gone to waste.” Dissatisfaction extended to the entire film, which The Washington Post dismissed as “shamelessly contrived pap” and which The Austin Chronicle skewered for a plot “that could be foretold by any unchurched fool.”

The critical consensus apparently misunderstood the allure of a movie that has become a cult classic among Black audiences, comparing it unfavorably to 1967’s To Sir, With Love and 1980’s Fame. The first Sister Act zeroes in on the bonds between Deloris and her white convent crew, mostly giving short shrift to the fact that the sisters live in a poor Black neighborhood. Reviewers seemed to prefer Deloris magically saving a white convent and cared less about her serving her own community. The sequel, meanwhile, directs its powers at exploring this wider environment. In doing so, it positions itself in the canon of 1990s hood dramas that sought to change how the country sees Black Americans.


Understanding the resonance of Sister Act 2 requires returning to its predecessor. Directed by Emile Ardolino, 1992’s Sister Act is, in many ways, a quintessential mobster story. Deloris is a performer at a Reno club run by Vince LaRocca (Harvey Keitel), her gangster boyfriend. When she sees him and his henchmen murder someone, they attempt to kill her too, to shut her up. She flees, and the police place her in witness protection at St. Katherine’s parish, a convent in an impoverished area of San Francisco. There, Deloris meets a host of affable nuns, including Mother Superior (Maggie Smith) and Sisters Mary Patrick (Kathy Najimy) and Mary Robert (Wendy Makkena).

Sister Act is interested primarily in the relationships forged at the convent and the high jinks that ensue. Sister Mary Lazarus (Mary Wickes) leads the choir—very poorly. The nuns have little direction on how to work as a team. But then, Mother Superior forces Deloris to join the choir as punishment for sneaking out to a bar. In no time, she’s in charge, revamping the entire operation. At Sunday Mass, they dazzle the congregants with a version of Mary Wells’s 1964 chart-topper “My Guy” that has been remixed as “My God.”

For the most part, the nuns remain within the confines of the convent. “These walls are the only protection they have,” according to Mother Superior. “The streets are no longer safe for them.” The chief exception is a heartwarming sequence—set to C+C Music Factory’s 1991 house anthem “Just a Touch of Love”—where the sisters tidy up the surrounding neighborhood.

Sister Act 2 has no desire to retread the territory of its predecessor. Rather, it paints a vivid picture of the world that the first film relegates to a montage. When Sisters Mary Robert, Mary Patrick, and Mary Lazarus attend one of Deloris’s Las Vegas shows as part of a broader mission to convince her to teach music at St. Francis Academy, Sister Mary Robert proclaims, “[I]t’s all because of you. I mean, you inspired us to go out into the community and do some good in the hood.” (The last bit is all the funnier because Sister Mary Robert is an especially soft-spoken nun.) Mother Superior later makes crystal clear why she and the sisters need Deloris: “We’re struggling here with a community that is tired and worn and despairing. We saw this school as some sort of renewal. But it’s becoming a hopeless situation.”


The hood drama comes in a variety of forms. Some, such as 1991’s Boyz n the Hood and 1996’s Set It Off, attend to graphic landscapes of brutality and death. Others, such as 1995’s Friday and its two sequels, aren’t even dramas in the conventional sense; they lean into comedy. (The popular meme “Bye, Felicia” comes from Friday; the rapper and actor Ice Cube, who co-wrote the script, said he wanted to show that “we had fun in the hood.”)

Following the 2019 death of John Singleton, who directed Boyz n the Hood and was revered as the “granddaddy of 90s hood dramas,” The Atlantic’s Hannah Giorgis argued that “he lent grace and reverence to the triumphs and pain of black life in America.” This applies to the genre more generally: no matter the tone of the movie, the goal is to elevate certain truths about being Black in the United States, to force the country to see Black communities with nuance and compassion.

Sister Act 2 fits neatly into this class of film.

More than that, though, Sister Act 2 has all the thematic touchstones of the hood drama. (Duke, the director, not coincidentally, had an acting role in Menace II Society, a 1993 hood drama that takes place in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts Rebellion and that premiered just a few months before Sister Act 2.) The relationship between Rita and her mother that some critics disparaged is in reality the movie’s heart and the clearest articulation of its political stakes. The parent-child fighting shines a light on the challenges confronting young people coming of age in urban neighborhoods where violence too often lurks just out of frame. Rita says as much when Sister Mary Robert beseeches the talented student to take music seriously: “Have you walked around this neighborhood lately? I’m not exactly living in the land of opportunity. I might want to sing, but it ain’t gonna happen, so what’s the point?”

This despair—this bone-deep feeling that everything is stacked against you—serves as the central tension of a number of hood dramas. Roland Bishop (Tupac Shakur) declares in one memorable scene in 1992’s Juice, about a group of four Black teens in Harlem, “We run from the cops. We run from Radames [the leader of a local Puerto Rican gang]. We run from security guards. We run from Old Man Quiles [a shop owner] and his fuckin’ bullshit store when he come with that bullshit gun. All we do is fuckin’ run!”

And like many hood dramas, Sister Act 2 interrogates Black masculinity, specifically through Ahmal (Ryan Toby). He’s the Afrocentric member of the choir—he calls his parents assimilationists and changes his name from Wesley—and he relishes showering his peers with history lessons and reminding them about the struggles beleaguering Black communities. When Frankie (Devin Kamin), who is white, starts rapping, Ahmal chides, “Can’t you come up with your own thing? Or must you continually come behind my people and steal our expressions? First jazz, then rock and roll, now rap.” Before the two come to blows, Deloris tells them to “leave this display of manhood outside” the classroom.

Deloris helps Ahmal buck this corrosive conception of manhood through singing. He is incredibly shy when it comes to performing, and only with Deloris’s coaching does he grow into his thunderous pipes. “You always talkin’ about Shaka Zulu. Do you think Shaka Zulu could repel a bunch of troops with a little, teeny-tiny voice like you’re using?” she asks during practice. This nurturing of a different sort of Black masculinity mirrors a dynamic in Friday. At one point, Craig Jones (Ice Cube) gets a gun in order to protect his best friend, Smokey (Chris Tucker), from a drug supplier in South Central Los Angeles; in response, Craig’s father, Willie (John Witherspoon), insists that what makes you a man is not blasting someone away but being unafraid to take emotional risks, or even to “take an ass-whippin’.”

From Motown to rap to gospel, Black musical traditions loom large in the hood drama, as they do in Sister Act 2. One of the main characters in Juice, Quincy “Q” Powell (Omar Epps), is a newcomer on the Black DJ scene in New York City. The film features a thrilling DJ battle in which Q shows off his scratching skills using a hip-hop setlist. (He and his friends enjoy killing time by stealing the latest LPs from a local record store.) And in 1993’s Poetic Justice, Lawrence, or “Lucky” (Shakur), is a postal worker and promising rapper in South Central. (Plus, Sister Act 2 served as a launching pad for Hill’s music career. Not long after her turn as Rita, she became a global rap star, first as a member of the Fugees, then as a solo artist. At the 41st Grammy Awards, she became the first rapper to pick up Album of the Year, thanks to 1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.)

The hood drama often cultivates a meta, even winking, connection to contemporary Black music, casting some of the most acclaimed emcees and singers as regular people. By the time she appeared in Juice and Set It Off, Queen Latifah had been blazing a path for Black women in hip-hop for several years. And Janet Jackson and Shakur were already dominating their respective music scenes by Poetic Justice’s release, as was Cube by Friday’s debut. In connecting established artists to sites of struggle, these movies suggest something sobering about Black prosperity—that it is precarious, that it can be gone in a flash.


Everything released today seems to be part of a franchise or cinematic universe—from Marvel blockbusters to the Conjuring films. But when white critics 30 years ago saw Sister Act 2 through a similarly shortsighted lens, they failed to appreciate how a Black director was radically expanding on the world brought to life by his white predecessor. In a 2019 interview with Andscape, Duke acknowledged the disconnect between white critics and Black audiences: “[T]he faces of the reviewers were very different than the viewers. So I was surprised, but not shocked, because they didn’t get us at the time. They didn’t get the message and did not relate on an emotional level.”

Even as a preteen, I thought that the movie’s magic was obvious. I have potent memories of watching Sister Act 2 in my heavily Black middle school orchestra class in the early 2000s; it seemed like it was the go-to flick whenever we had a substitute teacher. But regardless of how many times we’d seen the film, we couldn’t get enough—of Ahmal’s love of anything Black, of Rita’s rafter-shaking solos, of Deloris’s wisecracking.

I’m still struck by a scene early in the movie. Deloris is butting heads with the students, who are furious that she runs a tight ship. The class—what they call a “bird course”—will no longer be something that they can simply breeze through. “We don’t want no new way,” Rita protests. “The old way was fine for us.” Much like the hood drama, Sister Act 2 on its release understood that a new way was the only way forward, that cinema needed a fresh take on Black communities, one graced with complexity, humor, and talented people singing out their shoulda, coulda, wouldas.

LARB Contributor

Brandon Tensley is the national politics reporter at Capital B News and a freelance culture writer. Prior to joining Capital B, he was a national political writer at CNN, a contributing writer at Pacific Standard, and a founding co-host of Slate’s LGBTQ podcast, Outward.


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