IN HARLEM, on a bitter Saturday night, Sharon Parker, 33, a writer and teacher, wends her way through a police barricade on 147th Street and Broadway. It’s an hour before show time, but the crowd is already gathering beneath the Nova Twin theater’s windblown marquee, which (incompletely) spells out WAITING TO EX ALE, and Parker is determined that this time she’s getting a seat. She’s been planning the trip with her friends Sharron Cannon, 36, a film producer, and Tammi Jones, 25, an actress, since Thanksgiving. Jones has already been turned away from sold-out showings twice. ”Most films are about men,” says Parker. ”I’m usually sitting next to my husband, who’s going ‘Yeah!’ This is my turn.”

At the Century 25 theater in San Jose, Calif., Katrina Sayles, 22, and Lashona Patterson, 19, map digitizers, and Eru Mathewos, 21, a student, sing along to Chaka Khan’s cover of ”My Funny Valentine.” ”We got the soundtrack a couple of months ago,” says Sayles. ”I listen to it 50 times a day at work.” In Boston, teacher Shonnese Guion, 24, buys her third ticket at the Sony theater in Copley Place. And in Chicago, Brenda Johnson, a municipal equipment dispatcher, waits at the Chestnut Station Cinema with her friends of more than 20 years, Lucille Lane, a clerk for the city, and Myra Watts, who works at an engineering firm. The women, who have donned their fur coats to ward off the chill, met first for a drink and catch-up gossip before hopping in a cab. After hearing their destination, the driver had asked with a smirk, ”Going to see Exhale?”

”I tried to drag my boyfriend to this, but he wouldn’t come,” says Michelle Carter, a 31-year-old secretary in Toronto. ”He called it a ‘chick’ film. Jerk.”

That kind of comment unnerves those studio executives who still cling to the belief that men are essential to a movie’s success. So much for conventional Hollywood wisdom: Waiting to Exhale, 20th Century Fox’s $14 million adaptation of Terry McMillan’s 1992 best-selling novel, opened in first place on Dec. 22 and has ridden a wave of unprecedented enthusiasm among African-American women to a gross of $45 million in just three weeks. The industry’s eternal worry – ”What if men don’t go?” – has been answered with a resounding ”Who cares?”

”The film goes a long way to proving that this audience can drive box office,” says Fox’s president of marketing, Robert Harper. This audience, for the Þrst time in history, is African-American women, who, after years of seeing downbeat hood films, have welcomed a glossy portrait of their middle- and upper-middle-class lives (and have enjoyed some potshots at the men who make their days and nights difÞcult). While Exhale’s audience has lately become more racially mixed, blacks are still at the heart of its success. ”There’s never been a reflection on screen of me and my friends and peers,” says costar Lela Rochon. ”Hollywood has always overlooked the ordinary and shown [African-Americans] as crackheads or hookers. God bless ‘em, but I don’t know ‘em.”