Some locals fear the movie, with its scenes of lynchings and whippings, will stir up such emotion it could even spark race riots.
The racial divisions of Bunkie are also exposed in a new documentary being made by director Frank Eakin and Louis Gossett Jnr, the Oscar-winning star of An Officer and a Gentleman.
Frank, 52, is the son of Dr Sue Eakin, a historian and civil rights activist who devoted her life to researching Northup’s story from his 1853 memoir.
McQueen based his film on her book, 12 Years a Slave. She died in 2009 aged 90.
Frank, who grew up in Bunkie (pop 4,100), began the project after hearing from a white businessman friend in the city.
He explains: “He called me up saying, ‘People around here are worried this movie may cause a race riot.’
"I thought that was a good indication that there are severe problems with the races in Bunkie. But most whites are in denial.
"Little has changed in Bunkie since I moved away about 35 years ago.
"African-Americans, who make up about half the population, feel unwelcome, feel that whites want to avoid them, keep their distance – ‘You stay on your side of the tracks, we’ll stay on ours’.
“There is considerable tension with the white-dominated police force. They say a powder keg is building.”
Frank says his mother was so obsessed with Northup that “he felt like a brother we never met”.
“She felt his story was the most compelling way to highlight slavery... allow people, whites especially, to connect the dots with history and understand the origins of a lot of issues.”
But her activism stirred up resentment and the family home was burnt down twice in the 1950s as local racists tried to intimidate her.
When Frank returned to Bunkie he found mistrust in both the white and black communities.
Vanity Hayward, 18, is an African-American studying chemistry at university in the state capital, Baton Rouge.
She was a star pupil at Bunkie High School, where she says she saw racism almost daily.
She says: “Sometimes white girls would blatantly say ‘I can’t invite this person to my house because my mom doesn’t know their parents and they’re black’
“And if an interracial couple walked down the street there would be a problem.
"It would be on every social network – parents would even call the police saying their daughter got kidnapped.
"It would be the biggest deal of a lifetime.”
Vanity’s friend Tkeyhah Young adds: “There were more couples in our school who would hide it because they were scared of what their mommas and daddies would say.
"One girl was called a n*****-lover in a text message.”
Vanity adds: “The parents found out and banned her from hanging out with us and every other black friend that she has.
"Racism becomes so much of a habit that people don’t even realise they are racist.”
Chris Roy is a white web company boss who lived in New York for 20 years before moving his family back.
He says: “This is an economically depressed area.
"You don’t have a lot of opportunities for people and it just so happens that the business leaders are white and the very visible economically poor are black.
"The poor black families live in town while the poor white families live out in the country.
“So it’s mainly the black families who go to Piggly Wiggly (a supermarket) at the beginning of the month when the food-stamp electronic cards are filled by the state.
“Many black families spend most or all of their monthly food allowance in one trip.
“Lining up with multiple-filled grocery carts then paying with a government assistance card is very ‘in your face’ to white working families, most of whom can’t afford to do the same level of shopping.
"I know many whites who avoid that store on the first of the month because it makes them so mad.”
Marvin Crawford, 65, is an African-American property investor and a dad of four.
He says: “We still have people with these warped mindsets that blacks are inferior and a lot of it has to do with how people were raised.
“I’ve experienced a lot of it in my business... bias and prejudice.
"You don’t get total respect sometimes from your white counterparts.
“Parents have got to start teaching children, ‘Just because you’re white it doesn’t make you better than the kid that’s black’.
"That’s not done from the government or from the community – that stuff comes from homes.”
White lawyer Derrick Earles, 38, think race relations have improved in his lifetime, but adds: “I wouldn’t say that racism has completely gone.
"I think it exists among the uneducated and the narrow-minded.”
Bunkie’s Mayor Mike Robertson sat in on some of Frank’s interviews for the documentary and was shocked by the strength of local feeling.
He has now created a biracial human relations commission to bring both communities together.
Lucille Daniels, meanwhile, is no longer at the petrol station.
She’s an auditor with parent company Shell and president of the Bunkie Chamber of Commerce.
But she fears prejudice is ingrained on both sides.
She says: “I cannot get the blacks to participate in any of our events. We have a Mardi Gras ball in February.
"In the past the only black person there was me.
“I get these little hints like, ‘All you do is hang with white folks’ or ‘You’re doing what the white folks want you to do.’
“They come to the same old conclusion that white folks are running Bunkie and you’re not going to get any kind of respect because the white folks… well, it’s back to slavery .”