The period pic, which opened Nov. 1, stars Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman, the famed abolitionist and former slave who led hundreds of other slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad.
Harriet has become one of the most successful biographical dramas in the history of Focus Features at the domestic box office behind Joe Wright’s 2017 Winston Churchill pic The Darkest Hour ($56.4 million) and last year’s Spike Lee-directed BlacKkKlansman ($48.7 million), not adjusted for inflation. Focus is also home of The Theory of Everything ($35.7 million) and Milk ($31.8 million).
“There’s never been a movie about Harriet Tubman before. People were longing to see her story and feel inspired,” says Lisa Bunnell, distribution chief of Focus.
Harriet — which earned stellar reviews and a coveted A+ CinemaScore from audiences — has almost matched the $43 million earned domestically by Fox Searchlight and Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave following its release in 2013, not adjusted for inflation. (McQueen’s film was rated R, while Harriet carries a friendlier PG-13 rating, making it more accessible to school groups.)
Erivo — whom Focus is pushing for best actress in the Oscar race — also starred in McQueen’s ensemble pic Widows, which topped at $42.4 million domestically in fall 2018.
Harriet debuted to a better-than-expected $12 million domestically over the Nov. 1-3 weekend and has continued to overperform.
African Americans made up 49 percent of the film’s opening weekend audience, 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. Bunnell says the pic has since skewed younger.
Among Hollywood specialty film distributors, Harriet is the No. 2 title of the year to date behind fellow Focus title Downton Abbey, which has earned $96.7 million domestically, an all-time best for the Universal-owned company.
“Harriet has become a must-see movie due to the relevance and importance of the fabled freedom fighter whose story has particular resonance in these very divisive times and, of course, during awards season introspective and thought-provoking movies are the types of films are moviegoers are seeking,” says box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore.
Harriet has yet to roll out in earnest overseas.