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Black fans may not forgive ‘The Bachelor.’ But Matt James has their attention

Host Emmanuel Acho, left, with "Bachelor" Matt James on the "After the Final Rose" special.
Host Emmanuel Acho, left, with “Bachelor” Matt James on the “After the Final Rose” special that capped off a controversial season of the ABC reality series.
(Craig Sjodin / ABC)

Matt James had had enough.

The commercial real estate broker who was cast as the first Black lead of ABC’s “The Bachelor” was hoping to find true love. But his journey to find a soulmate among more than 30 beautiful women ended in heartbreak and a firestorm centered around racism.

During the season, James had fallen in love with graphic designer Rachel Kirkconnell, who, as social media sleuths quickly discovered, had attended an antebellum South-themed party in 2018 and “liked” other racially insensitive posts — something producers either failed to catch before casting her or simply ignored. Monday’s two-hour finale, filmed months ago, featured the happy couple riding off into the sunset. The post-finale “After the Final Rose” special revolved around their breakup, which came after James found out about the incidents.

The centerpiece of “After the Final Rose” was their reunion — James and Kirkconnell had not seen each other since their split. Sitting together on the couch in the studio, James appeared anguished. For several prolonged moments, he didn’t speak, his bearded face registering a combination of hurt and anger. Though Kirkconnell caressed his shoulder and tried to hold his hand, James alternated between looking away from her or regarding her with a stony gaze.

Even without words, though, several members of “Bachelor Nation” who have been critical of how this season unfolded heard James loud and clear.

“The Bachelor’s” controversial season came to an end with a fraught discussion on Monday — and no news about the status of besieged host Chris Harrison.

“I saw in Matt’s silence all the things he could not say while under contract,” said Myah Genung, who has been watching “The Bachelor” since its premiere in 2002. “To me, he was saying, ‘I’m angry, and I’m defeated.’ There’s the frustration that this entire season is being reduced to what happened between Matt and Rachael, and it’s about a whole lot more than what happened to them.”

Natasha Scott, who hosts the Bachelor-themed “2 Black Girls, 1 Rose” podcast with Justine Kay, said, “The overwhelming sentiment was that it was really sad. I felt bad for Matt James — he looked really messed up and damaged, in a way, by the process. You can see he’s been processing a lot, going through his own mental journey to figure out how he ended up here.”

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Kay pointed out that James had struggled in the past with relationships and how that played out on the show. “He had all that pressure, and he’s someone who has not dealt well with emotions and feelings. That all being too much for him is something you could hear in his silence.”

Scott added that ABC and producers have to be held accountable for not taking more care in protecting James and understanding the pressures that would be faced by a Black man entering a franchise that has been overwhelmingly white.

“I wanted to see a Black man fall in love and instead I’m watching this,” said Scott. “It’s ridiculous that ABC cast a person with such a well-documented history of racist behavior, this season of all seasons. But Matt James chose her — he made a choice. I’m sure he’s thinking in his own mind, ‘What did I miss? What conversations did I not have with her? What questions did I not ask her? Why did I not have those conversations and ask those questions?’

“I think you see him reeling with that in his head while dealing with his own trauma, childhood stuff with his parents, while on national TV.”

Matt James and Rachael Kirkconnell on "The Bachelor."
(Craig Sjodin / ABC)

James was raised by his mother, a white woman who was abandoned by his father. The devastating impact of the wound on his family was highlighted during the finale, particularly when his mother tearfully told him that being in love is not enough to make a successful relationship. James’ awkward conversation with his father in the penultimate episode did little to ease his own pain, complicating his ability to commit to a relationship with Kirkconnell or elementary school teacher Michelle Young, the other semifinalist.

Instead of seeking guidance from friends or family, James sought out host Chris Harrison for guidance, and their exchanges were key elements of the finale. Some viewers said they felt Harrison was unsympathetic and annoyed by James’ plight, pushing him toward proposing to one of the finalists, which would give the season the desired fairy-tale ending.

“It was clear to me that Chris Harrison was not the right person to deal with Matt’s process,” Genung said.

Harrison was absent for his usual “After The Final Rose” duties, replaced by Acho in the fallout that erupted midseason after Harrison’s contentious interview with former “Bachelorette” Rachel Lindsay on “Extra” about Kirkconnell’s delay in addressing the racially insensitive social media posts.

Harrison defended Kirkconnell, making what he later admitted were “racist” comments. He apologized three times for his statement and stepped away from the special but says he plans to return to the franchise.

After pledging ‘real change’ amid last year’s protests, ABC and owner Walt Disney Co. stayed silent as a firestorm over race consumed its reality-TV flagship.

Ashley Tabron, a high school teacher from North Carolina, was concerned that the situation with Harrison and his absence was glossed over in “After the Final Rose.” “I think the show missed an opportunity to speak [about] and openly condemn what Chris did,” she said. “I was a little disappointed in that.”

The special did not address why Harrison was absent, why producers cast Kirkconnell or the series’ oft-criticized casting process more broadly. James told Kirkconnell it was not her past behavior that immediately led to their breakup. He said he was “devastated” when she didn’t immediately understand why he was so wounded by those offensive images.

When the special’s host, Emmanuel Acho, tried to get the couple to embrace for a final time, James did not budge, ignoring Kirkconnell’s hopeful expression. Some viewers praised the move.

Said Tabron: “I thought it was really good that he didn’t hug her or leave the door open for reconciliation. I don’t think that’s where he is. I do applaud him for not giving the show that. It’s not his responsibility to help her do the work. A lot of people criticized him at the beginning, questioning whether he was capable of handing these issues that came up. But you could see the past couple of months has taken a toll on him. In that moment, he claimed his agency and didn’t give Rachael, the viewers or anyone else that reconciliation. He let it end in the discomfort zone.”

Added Kay: “It was really sad to see Matt looking like that, partially by his own volition, but I’m also proud to see the progress that he’s made.”


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