As a teen, she dropped out of high school to join the convent. For decades, she has devoted her life to the Lord, taking her preaching out into the streets of Harlem, New York, reaching out to drug dealers, addicts, prostitutes and gangsters. She sparked an ‘intimate’ friendship with noted Harlem mob boss Bumpy Johnson. She was elected into the office of unofficial mayor of Harlem and sworn in by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, as well as named the community mayor. She has even been profiled in the New York Times. But perhaps the part she is most well known for, if she has it her way, is the inspiration behind Whoopi Goldberg’s character of Deloris Van Carter in the hit musical comedy, Sister Act, as well as its sequel — Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit — and, most recently, the Broadway musical of the same name. Her name is Delois Blakely and she has recently filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court in New York against Walt Disney Studios (as Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group, Inc.), musical producer Stage Entertainment, Sony Pictures Entertaiment, producer Scott Rudin and original screenwriter Paul Rudnick for stealing her story and bringing it to the silver screen and Broadway stage.
It’s no coincidence that the film’s main character is named Deloris and she Delois, she notes in her claim. Nor is it a coincidence that in the film, Deloris is known as Sister Mary, while she herself was known as Sister Marie. Other similarities are noted such as Deloris’ association with a gangster and how Deloris became choir director in the film (Blakely had only gone as far as to train for the same position). The similarities begin to wane, but not so much the inspiration, as Blakley points out that while Deloris hid in the convent to escape the wrath of gangsters, she had taken Bumpy Johnson into the convent to protect him from other gangsters. She also points out philosophical beliefs between the character and herself, namely that her belief that the Church should move to unconventional means and take their teachings out in the streets, a technique she employed, ultimately causing her to leave the convent after ten years, but not her aspirations and faith.
According to Blakely, Hollywood learned of her life after she brought an autobiography titled The Harlem Street Nun to literary agent Bertha Klausner in 1989. Although the manuscript appears to never have been published, its existence is confirmed by the custodian of Klausner’s collection, the University of Wyoming, although it attributes the manuscript to Frank Harris III.
Blakely says the manuscript was well received by TriStar Pictures who were interested in the project, enough so that they conducted a personal follow-up call with Blakely (essentially a fact-finding mission) and seemed eager to develop the deal, but warned that an impending merger with Columbia Pictures may slow the process. As nothing ever came of it, Blakely eventually learned of the film, produced by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, and its subject matter, and worked for years to piece the story together as to how her story made it to the big screen.
The common denominator, according to Blakely, was noted film producer Scott Rudin. According to industry articles she had found online, Rudin, who had the story at TriStar was banned from the lot by Columbia (following a previous altercation) and he instead took the project, mentioned in the article by name, to Disney. Blakely asked Disney to investigate the matter and they did, determining that Sister Act was an original title, not based on any pre-existing material. For their part, Sony simply could only confirm that there was never a deal in place and could not find any mention of Blakely’s manuscript on file.
Blakely is actively pursuing a trial by jury and is seeking ‘damages and injunctive relief arising from defendants’ breach of contract, breach of confidential relationship, misappropriation and unjust enrichment, unfair competition, false representation, violation of right of publicity and other wrongs.’
ADDED: Interestingly enough, this is not the first time Disney has been sued over the Sister Act film. A copyright claim filed against Walt Disney Studios in the mid-90s by plaintiffs Donna Douglas and Curt Wilson cited dozens of similarities between the final product and a script they had submitted to the Studio. In that particular case, the presiding judge ruled that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove the case and ruled in Disney’s favor.
Whether Sister Act is determined to be based on Blakely’s own memoirs remains to be seen, but she has — without dispute — lived a remarkable life and perhaps the greatest chapter has yet to be written as she has elected to forgo a legal team and is representing herself.
A nun turned lawyer — if that doesn’t scream Disney live action, what does?