What does it mean when a low-budget movie with a largely unknown, all-black cast takes the top spot in a crowded fall weekend? Could it be that change is afoot in the rules of American moviegoing, that an ethnic movie can cross over to a broad audience?

It's still too early to say for sure. Right now all that's certain is that Malcolm D. Lee's romantic comedy "The Best Man," with its glamorous, all-gorgeous cast, is a resounding success, taking in $9.1 million last weekend and beating out four other movies that debuted with it--Martin Scorsese's much-anticipated "Bringing Out the Dead," the horror film "Bats," another romantic comedy, "Three to Tango," and "Crazy in Alabama," directed by Antonio Banderas.

The weekend tally for "The Best Man," about a group of college buddies who reunite over a weekend for a wedding, was slightly higher than the movie's entire budget, which means it is already destined for financial success.

But the weekend win also means that "The Best Man" has at least a shot at crossing over to a wide audience. Though Hollywood may not like it, the winner of the weekly box office horse race gets widespread media attention and often a second look from audiences that passed it up before.

"The fact that it is a number one film gives it credibility and legitimacy with mainstream audiences," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, which tallies the box office take. "That has a ripple effect on audiences. They see that and think, 'This must be good. I'll check it out.' And if word of mouth is good, that can help, too."

Among the film's strong selling points, he noted, are the wedding theme, which has been popular in recent movies from "Four Weddings and a Funeral" to "The Wedding Singer," and its attractive cast, emphasized in the film's advertising. Among its weaknesses: no stars to speak of, and Americans' moviegoing habits that put films with black actors into the limited, "genre" category. Other hit films with ensemble black casts, such as "Soul Food" in 1997 and "Waiting to Exhale" in 1995, have not significantly crossed over to attract a mainstream audience.

For the moment, "The Best Man" remains a hit mainly with African American audiences despite the best efforts of Universal Pictures, which spent $10 million on advertising that included TV spots during "ER," "Ally McBeal" and "Dawson's Creek." Exit polls taken over the weekend found that 85 percent of the audience was African American.

Universal's marketing chief, Mark Shmuger, said the studio's aim was always to attract a broad audience, since the movie is about the universal themes of friendship, romance and commitment. "We never made it seem too urban or too much of a 'black' movie that would limit or turn off other viewers," he said of the campaign. "To us, it was a cross between two great genres, the reunion genre and the wedding genre. We advertised 'The Best Man' just as we would have advertised 'The Big Chill' or 'My Best Friend's Wedding.' "

But first-time director Lee (Spike's cousin) and some members of his cast have criticized the media for pigeonholing the film. Co-star Taye Diggs wrote an incensed letter to Entertainment Weekly magazine when it called the film a " 'Big Chill' for the African-American audience" in its fall preview (many critics did the same): "What right do you have to assume these things?" he asked. "I found this statement both inaccurate and ignorant, not to mention racist and stereotypical."

Even the more understated Lee has been beating the "universal" drum in his interviews, telling USA Today in an article published Tuesday: "You don't have to say 'black film.' You don't call 'Titanic' a white film. You just say it is a film, and all kinds of people go to the film, no matter what race they are."

Universal studio executives were angered Friday when the Los Angeles Times assigned an African American reporter, not a critic, to review the film.

But Shmuger, for one, is buoyed by last weekend's performance and believes that "The Best Man" can still cross over. This week's TV advertising has been emphasizing the film's "number one" status and its feel-good message. But Shmuger says American audiences still need to get used to the idea of colorblind moviegoing.

"It is a process," Shmuger notes. "It's a conditioning process for the marketplace to get used to accepting movies without colored glasses on, to be able just to embrace the quality and the experience of the picture."

LEADING BLACK FILMS:

Top 10 grossing films with predominantly black casts:

Gross (Millions)

"The Nutty Professor" (1996) $128.8

"Coming to America" (1988) $128.1

"Boomerang" (1992) $70.0

"Waiting to Exhale" (1995) $67.0

"Life" (1999) $63.8

"Harlem Nights" (1989) $60.8

"Boyz N the Hood" (1991) $56.1

"Eddie Murphy Raw" (1987) $50.4

"Malcolm X" (1992) $48.1

"The Preacher's Wife" (1996) $48.0

Compiled by Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc.