After months of build-up, Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” opened quietly but strongly in 1,124 theaters nationwide yesterday.

While distributor Warner Bros. hadn’t finished crunching early audience results, a studio spokesman described preliminary numbers as “big.” Some insiders are hoping for a minimum of $ 15 million from the five-day opening weekend.

As WB executives awaited turnouts nationwide, theater owners were breathing a sigh of relief over the lack of anticipated violence.

In fact, many of those who saw the film left theaters in tears yesterday, so moved by director Spike Lee’s 3-hour, 21-minute account of the fiery black leader’s life.

In New York, students took Lee’s advice and skipped school for the day to see the film.

“I wouldn’t change a thing about this movie,” said 16-year-old Tahirah Duncan , who exited the Victoria 5 theater in Harlem watching the biopic with her Afro-American studies class from Montclair, N.J. “Malcolm X was a hero. He supported black unity.”

The film follows Malcolm X from his days as a street hustler through his association with Nation of Islam and his 1965 murder in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom.

Duncan was one of about 300 students from Manhattan and Montclair who filled the theater with the blessing of their schools. It was the same theater where the cast and crew of “Malcolm X” saw the film the night before.

As in New York, there were no early reports of violence at Los Angeles theaters. Sources said Warner Bros. and exhibitors shared extra hefty security costs, with the studio paying “well into seven figures and up.”

Mann Theaters spokesman Bill Hertz said: “‘Malcolm X’ neither incites nor exploits violence and has drawn a strong positive response from a broad audience spectrum at early screenings. Our security measures will be consistent with those taken for any major films anticipated to draw a large audience.”

It was the Westwood Mann theaters that had been the site of violence at the opening of “New Jack City” last year, another WB film.

The only reported violence, in Seattle, turned out to be unrelated to the film.

Just before the Varsity Theater had planned to open “Malcolm X,” someone slashed a 4-foot-high letter X or V in the old screen. WB officials insist it was a V and therefore unrelated to the pic. Others said the incident concerned a dispute with a competing theater.

As for other opening reactions:

“This showed the human side of Malcolm,” said Coltrane Curtis in Harlem. “Everybody learned something from this.”

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