‘Father Stu’: Mark Wahlberg Priest Biopic Hits Number 1 on Netflix

‘Father Stu’: Mark Wahlberg Priest Biopic Hits Number 1 on Netflix September 21, 2022

A man standing in a church pew looks back.
Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) in Columbia Pictures’ FATHER STU. PHOTO BY: Karen Ballard/© 2022 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

When released to theaters on April 13, Father Stu — starring Catholic rapper-turned-actor/producer Mark Wahlberg as boxer-turned-priest Father Stuart Long — didn’t break any box-office records. But, now out on Netflix, it zoomed straight to the top.

I settled in last night to re-watch the first episode of the new season of The Great British Baking Show, and was pleasantly surprised to see the following image on my screen:

Picture of the Netflix welcome screen

So, What Happened to Father Stu at the Box Office?

I was a fan of the film when it first came out, writing:

It’s got cursing, fighting, fierce conflict and sin, but it also has truth, beauty, grace and redemption. It may shave several years off, and compress, the story of how non-religious former boxer, bouncer and all-around-tough-guy Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) became Father Stu, only to die young of a progressive muscle disorder, but it retains the core message of his life:

The world is a hard place, suffering has value and can be redemptive, and God doesn’t just lay His hand on the godly.

But, what I heard from viewers is that the rough language turned a lot of them off. Some women I know thought it was too much of a “guy film.”

Promoting Father Stu to the usual Christian audience of megachurch Evangelicals was probably a total waste of time. First of all, not that many of them would be interested in the story of a Catholic conversion that ended in priestly ordination. And second, that audience is notoriously averse to bad language.

Case in point: despite all the violence and gore in director Mel Gibson’s WWII drama Hacksaw Ridge, starring Andrew Garfield as a devout Seventh-Day Adventist war hero — all the f-bombs were carefully removed … as organizers pointedly mentioned at a special faith-leaders screening.

Father Stu was also heavily promoted to the Catholic audience, through the usual faith-focused media outlets. But, many Catholics don’t read those anymore, and those that do are likely to be the same sort of folks that would also object to the language and other adult content.

But the film did generate a lot of chatter in the media. And, Mark Wahlberg has a sizable following, including for original films made for Netflix, such as the recent comedy Me Time.

But Streaming Is a Different World

Now available as part of a Netflix subscription, Father Stu (which can be rented or bought digitally on Amazon and other platforms, and on DVD/Blu-ray) may have finally found its audience.

What is that audience? Netflix won’t say, but I reckon it’s made up of Catholics (both orthodox and the cafeteria kind), those curious about Catholicism, Mark Wahlberg fans, Mel Gibson fans (he plays Father Stu’s father, and his current partner, Rosalind Ross, wrote and directed); and those who knew Father Stu during his lives in Montana and Los Angeles.

There may even be some other Christians or even those from other faiths or no faith, who heard about the film but didn’t feel comfortable or motivated to go to a theater or pay to rent or buy it online.

Apparently, all these folks are enough to make Father Stu number 1 on Netflix.

Finally, Wahlberg Finds the Success He Sought

This must feel like vindication for Wahlberg, who walked his own bumpy path — including brushes with the law, a jail stay and a career as a rapper and underwear model — on his way into the Church.

He also packed on 30 pounds and reached into his own pocket to make this film a reality.

In a video interview I did with Wahlberg, he said:

“I’ve done action. I’ve done drama. I’ve done comedy. I’ve always gravitated towards real stories and biopics, but I think definitely, yes, hopefully, this will be the first of many successful faith-based movies with mainstream audiences with major studios.

“So my plan is to make lots more faith-based content, both film and television, long-form, short-form, and hopefully, Stu will be the first of many.

Who Was the Real Father Stu?

Click here to see a story I wrote in which a priest and a bishop talk about the Father Stuart Long they knew and admired. Bishop George Thomas, who ordained Stu despite him having a rare, debilitating autoimmune disease, said:

“So, my struggle was whether or not I would call him to Holy Orders, for a couple of reasons. One is, obviously, he’d have a very short active priesthood; there are tremendous costs associated with this kind of care, a lot of question marks.

“But I kept being prompted by the Holy Spirit, moving forward the Holy Orders. And in my estimation, there’s a lot of power in redemptive suffering, and that’s exactly how he lived.

“His priesthood was about six years altogether, and he was stunningly effective in those years. And things like, I’d go to visit him at the rehab center, which was really a rehab nursing home. And it would not be unusual to have six or eight or 10 people lined up outside his room waiting to go to confession.

And Montana priest Father Sean Raftis, who went to Father Stu for confession, said:

“He was very Christlike. It was great, because he was a great priest, but he was like an old shoe, in a way. He could talk to anybody. He was just a very charismatic man. He just drew so many people to him. And it was very interesting, because the time he drew so many people to him is when he was suffering the most.”

The real story of Father Stu wasn’t one of overnight success, and it looks like the movie Father Stu might have stumbled out of the gate, but has finally found its feet.

Here’s the whole Wahlberg interview:

And the film’s original trailer:

Image: Karen Ballard/© 2022 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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About Kate O'Hare
Based in Los Angeles, Kate O'Hare is a veteran entertainment journalist, Social Media Content Manager for Family Theater Productions and a rookie screenwriter. You can read more about the author here.

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