Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet shone in its nationwide debut over the weekend, grossing a better-than-expected $12 million from 2,059 theaters.
The Focus Features biopic stars Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman, the iconic Underground Railroad conductor who was a hero of the anti-slavery movement.
In an era dominated by branded IP and superheroes, Harriet — which earned a coveted A+ CinemaScore from audiences — landed at No. 4, just behind the $12.2 million grossed by Maleficent: Mistress of Evil in the sequel’s third weekend.
Harriet scored the 13th-best opening ever for Focus — including installments in the Insidious franchise — and ahead of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, which started off with $10.8 million from 1,512 locations in August 2018, not adjusted for inflation.
“Audiences have been unanimous for their love of this film, which is clear from its A+ CinemaScore and 98 percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes,” says Focus distribution president Lisa Bunnell. “With the story of one woman’s strength that literally changed the world we all live in today, it is the feel-great movie people are looking for — becoming an event for friends and families going to see together.”
Adds Harriet producer Debra Martin Chase: “This is not a slave movie. This is a movie that says we cannot control the circumstances into which we are born, but we can control what we do once we get here.”
African-Americans made up 49 percent of tickets buyers, followed by Caucasians (36 percent), Hispanics (8 percent) and Asian/other (7 percent), according to PostTrak. Nearly 60 percent of the audience was 35 and older, including almost 40 percent over 45.
Heading into the weekend, Harriet was tracking to open in the $7.5 million-$9 million range.
Focus, owned by Universal, is the first specialty division to have two consecutive releases — Downton Abbey ($31 million) and Harriet — debut domestically to $10 million or more since Miramax 15 years ago (Cold Mountain and Kill Bill Vol. I).
Harriet‘s top five-grossing theaters were in Harlem, Atlanta, Manhattan, Brooklyn and Washington, D.C. Zackary Momoh, Michael Marunde and Vanessa Bell Calloway also star in the film, which was co-written by Gregory Allen Howard and Lemmons.
While Harriet was able to avoid the curse that has doomed many adult dramas this year, Warner Bros.’ Motherless Brooklyn, directed by Edward Norton, wasn’t so lucky.
The neo-noir crime thriller, opting for a more modest footprint of 1,332 theaters, opened to $1 million on Friday for a domestic debut of $3.2 million, behind expectations. The adaptation of the Jonathan Lethem novel about a New York detective with Tourette’s syndrome stars Norton alongside Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
Both Harriet and Motherless Brooklyn premiered at the this year’s Toronto Internaitonal Film Festival in advance of Oscar season.
Elsewhere, awards hopefuls Parasite, Jojo Rabbit and The Lighthouse continued to make gains at the specialty box office.
In its fourth weekend, Boog Joon-ho’s Parasite expanded into a total of 462 locations, earning $2.6 million to land at No. 11. The Neon release has earned $7.5 million to date, a promising number for a foreign-language film.
Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit upped its location count to 256 sites in its third outing. The irreverent Hitler comedy earned $2.4 million for a domestic total of $4.3 million for Fox Searchlight.
And A24’s The Lighthouse, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, finished its third Sunday with a domestic cume of $7 million after earning $2 million from 978 cinemas over the weekend.