The Best Man Holiday Gives Thor a Run for Its Millions

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Thor: The Dark World won the weekend, and it almost doesn’t matter. The Marvel Studios sequel will keep generating hundreds of millions at the North American box office — where its $38.5-million second weekend brought it to a muscular $147 million — and abroad. In less than three weeks, The Dark World has already exceeded the worldwide total of the 2011 Thor, $479.8 million to $449.3 million. Marvel movies make money; that is not news.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Thor: The Dark World)

The weekend’s surprise is that the black-cast rom-com-dram The Best Man Holiday soared some 50% above industry forecasts and earned $30.6 million, according to preliminary studio estimates. In this followup to the 1999 The Best Man, which tallied $34.1 million in its entire run ($54 million in today’s dollars), writer-director Malcolm D. Lee (Spike’s cousin) reconvened his first film’s cast — Morris Chestnut, Monica Calhoun, Melissa De Sousa, Taye Diggs, Regina Hall, Terrence Howard, Sanaa Lathan and Nia Long — for a Christmas session of laughs, tears and a few primal screams.

[UPDATE: According to the final weekend figures, issued Monday, all 10 of the leading films finished below their reported Sunday estimates, from the modest 1.6% drop for The Best Man Holiday (whose actual total was $30.1 million) to the severe 4.9% dive for Thor: The Dark World (to $36.6 million). In limited release, Charlie Countryman fell 7.3% from its pitiful $8,600 in 15 theaters to an egregious $7,973.]

Produced for a meager $17 million, which suggests that the stars were paid Walmart wages (we hope they share in the profits), the R-rated Holiday received mixed reviews from critics but enthralled its largely African-American audience. Early viewers, polled by the CinemaScore research firm, gave the film a perfect A-plus, the same rating The Help snagged two years ago.

(READ: Taye Diggs on How to Be Funny When You’re Naked in The Best Man Holiday)

As women go to see movies about men (because what other kinds are there?), so blacks see movies about whites. But a minority that buys perhaps a fifth of all film tickets sold in the U.S. surely merits a cinema of its own. Some of the biggest marquee names are gentlemen of color — Denzel Washington, Dwayne Johnson, Jamie Foxx when he feels like it, Will Smith when he’s not playing impresario to his son’s career and, if you will, Vin Diesel (who describes himself as “of ambiguous ethnicity”) — mostly in movies where their race is incidental to an action-film plot.

Below that stratosphere, and beyond the Tyler Perry Madea phenomenon, there’s room for modestly budgeted comedies and dramas about the black experience. The Jackie Robinson 42 ($95 million domestic gross) and Lee Daniels’ The Butler ($115 million) showed the broad appeal of inspirational bio-pics. Closer to the Holiday vibe was last year’s Think Like a Man, Steve Harvey’s genial relationship comedy that opened to $33.6 million and earned $91.5 million before it was done. If Holiday can match the Harvey picture’s earning, even myopic Hollywood moguls should begin greenlighting more movies to please this underserved audience.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Think Like a Man

Actually, this wasn’t a bad box-office weekend for racial equilibrium. Five of the top 10 films have leading or important roles for black actors: Idris Elba as the all-seeing Watchman in The Dark World; Morgan Freeman as one of the alter kocker quartet in Last Vegas (No. 3); Chiwetel Ejiofor and many splendid black performers in 12 Years a Slave (No. 8); and Barkhad Abdi as the leader of the pirate crew in Captain Phillips (No. 9).

The whitest film imaginable — Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, starring Bruce Dern as the cranky patriarch of an oddball, Anglo, Plains-state family — opened well. An Oscar hopeful for Dern as Best Actor and Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) for director, the movie earned $140,000 in a limited release of just four theaters. Elsewhere, the English holiday-miracle movie The Christmas Candle managed a respectable $756,000 on five screens.

(READ: Belinda Luscombe’s profile of Bruce Dern in Nebraska

The weekend’s finest new release, by many critics’ measure, was Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, a meditation on modern Roman holidays that earned a bellissima $23,000 at one Manhattan theater. By ignominious comparison, Charlie Countryman, a romantic drama headlined by Shia LaBeouf, cadged $8,600 at 15 venues, for a sickly $573 per-screen average. Just a few years ago, with starring roles in the Transformers series and the fourth Indiana Jones film, LaBeouf was the hot young male actor — mainstream movies’ Great White Hope. But, at least for now, he’s Hopeless.

(READ: Mary and Richard Corliss’s review of The Great Beauty)

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Thor: The Dark World, $38.5 million; $147 million. second week
2. The Best Man Holiday, $30.6 million, first weekend
3. Last Vegas, $8.85 million; $47 million, third week
4. Free Birds, $8.3 million; $42.2 million, third week
5. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, $7.7 million; $90.2 million, fourth week
6. Gravity, $6.3 million; $240.6 million, seventh week
7. Ender’s Game, $6.2 million; $53.8 million, third week
8. 12 Years a Slave, $4.7 million; $24.9 million, fifth week
9. Captain Phillips, $4.5 million; $97.6 million, sixth week
10. About Time, $3.5 million; $11.6 million, third week